Friday, January 15, 2010

City squalor   posted by Razib @ 1/15/2010 09:47:00 PM

I recently read The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found & Roman Passions: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome. Got me in the mind of thinking more about the history of city life, and what it was like in the past, and how it compares to my own experiences. In Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America Eric Rauchway asserts that the American mania for public health in cities was driven in large part by fears of contagion brought by new immigrants, and that the United States by 1900 was the first society where urban life expectancies began to surpass rural ones. The reality of attrition may be one reason why ancient cities such as Rome could shrink by an order of magnitude in population over a century when rents (circa 500 to 600) contingent upon a particular political order disappeared.* Consider the famous Roman baths. These were essential Third Places, where individuals of all classes and both sexes might mingle.** But remember that the baths were not chlorinated, and the flushing of dirty water was primitive enough that classical literature makes several references to floating feces. In regards to elimination it seems that in most residences the latrine was located near the kitchen, in part so that leavings from the dinner preparation (at least in more affluent houses, the lower classes may mostly have eaten the equivalent of "street food") could be discarded easily. And, there was a notable shortage of latrines in urban apartment buildings on a per capita basis, with one to a complex being standard.

This got me to thinking of my visit to Bangladesh as a child in the late 1980s. The lack of appropriate sewage disposal facilities in Dhaka was very salient to me at the time, and only somewhat less so when I visited in 2004. In 1989 I arrived for Christmas break, so the weather was relatively mild and dry. Nevertheless the filth in the city of Dhaka was such as that I was constantly plagued by respiratory problems. There was though an interlude of a week in a rural area (where a part of my family is from). It was relatively primitive; electrification had not swept the region yet. Nevertheless the cleanliness of the countryside in relation to the city was very striking, and my respiratory ailments quickly cleared up. This is not to say that I did not notice the smell of cow dung (which I preferred to the constant aroma of human ordure in Dhaka), and we did boil our water as a precautionary measure. And aside from one house built by my grandfather there were no modern latrines in the village (you've seen Slumdog Millionaire?). Nevertheless the effect on my health was palpable in the rural vs. urban contrast.

This may be reminiscent of the zero-sum nature of pre-modern life. One the one hand ancient cities grew large because of the vicissitudes of subsistence cultivation. Rome's lower class population originated in large part from dispossessed yeoman farmers. Escape to the city might have been a way to avoid starvation as a freeholder whom the gods had not smiled upon. And for the elites Rome was a magnet which drew them because of its centrality as the locus of public life, status and prestige. For intellectuals and the aspiring urbane the city was the only game in town. But it is no surprise that the well-to-do focused so much on their gardens and urban parks, as they were private retreats from the repulsive squalor of ancient city life which wealth could not fully insulate one from.

Today young couples, at least in the United States, often move out of the city. The main reason is cost of living, and the option of having an affordable home with more space for children, and better schools. It is a testament to modern civilization that health is a relatively minor concern when making this sort of decision (in fact, New Yorkers have a high life expectancy, though that may not be due to urban life per se). There are many resemblances between the ancient and modern city in terms of the roles they play within a society, but at least we have moved past some of the more harsh trade-offs.

Note: In my trip in 2004 it seemed to me that Dhaka had developed a bit in the interlude in terms of air quality and sewage disposal, though I still had respiratory issues, and it was still filthy by Western standards. But the roads were better, and we visited several houses of acquaintances who lived in the rural areas just outside the city, though they worked in the city. Again the difference in air quality was very notable, and I could understand why they would subject themselves to the commute so as to spare their families. Additionally, I might add that I also perceived a wide variance in air quality within Dhaka itself, with newer areas of the city built up due to urban sprawl being less foul than the older core.

* One possibility would be relocation to other cities, or the transformation of long term city-dwellers into subsistence farmers who settled outside the city limits. I am skeptical of the latter option in a world at its Malthusian limit, and where subsistence farming seems likely to have had little margin whereby one could learn the skills necessary as an adult.

** By the Imperial period most baths were sex segregated spatially or temporally, but not all.