How epidemics shaped places we live in

Positively Putney BID are members of the Institute of Place Management, the professional body and learned society for people who serve places. They have been hosting a series of webinars on a range of topics to aid place managers in their thinking about dealing with COVID-19. One of these webinars I found particularly interesting on the historical run down of how epidemics have shaped the places we live and how COVID-19 will be no different. Professor Ares Kalandides took us from the slums of the 19th Century through to post-war modernist estates.

Living in the slums of London in the 18th and 19th century in the appalling conditions with three generations of families living in one room. Epidemics were rife, the most known were cholera and typhoid. 1831, this terrifying epidemic Cholera raised a sense of urgency about London’s sanitation problems. Doctors had no idea how the disease spread and there was no cure. Edwin Chadwick, a social reformer in his publication The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population (1842), used quantitative methods to show that there was a direct link between poor living conditions, disease and life expectancy. Chadwick was convinced that measures such as cleaning, drainage and ventilation would improve the health of working people. Chadwick supported the rapid removal of human waste, seeing it as a major source of the ‘bad air’ that caused the disease. Unfortunately, his limited improvements to the chaotic sewage and drainage systems led to a greater flow of raw sewage into the River Thames—the main source of drinking water for London. By further contaminating London’s water supply, the risk of cholera was greatly increased.

In 1848–49 there was a second outbreak of cholera, and this was followed by a further outbreak in 1853–54. Towards the end of the second outbreak, John Snow, a London-based physician, published a paper, On the Mode of Communication of Cholera (1849), in which he proposed that cholera was not transmitted by bad air but by a water-borne infection. However, little attention was paid to the paper. Following the third cholera outbreak in 1854, Snow published an update to his theory, with statistical evidence that he had collected from around Broad Street, Soho. By recording the location of deaths related to cholera in the area, Snow was able to show that the majority were clustered around one particular public water pump in Broad Street. 

Snow’s discovery completely changed the way city planning went. Over decades the River Thames had effectively become London’s largest open sewer, but it wasn’t until the Great Stink of the summer of 1858 when the smell of raw sewage in the River Thames caused Parliament to close that Londoners decided to do something about the city’s sanitation crisis. Unable to ignore the stench of the Thames and fearful of the miasmatic belief that ‘all smell is disease’, parliament sanctioned one of the century’s great engineering projects—a new sewer network for London. As Chief Engineer on London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, Joseph Bazalgette was primarily responsible for the creation of the new system. Bazalgette’s engineered solution was a system that channelled the waste through miles of street sewers into a series of main intercepting sewers which slowly transported it far enough upstream so that it could be pumped into the tidal Thames—from where it would be swept out to sea. The new system physically changed the appearance of riverside London and the River Thames. The new sewers made a huge difference to the health of Londoners and only now in the 21st Century is it being upgraded in the Tideway project.

Tideway tunnel
Removing the boring machine at Tideway Putney Bridge site

The instigator of the beautification of Paris was Napoleon III employing Baron Haussman in 1853. Opinions amongst urban socialists are mixed as to whether what Haussman did was good or bad but his work is still very apparent in modern Paris. Admittedly, Haussmann destroyed a considerable portion of the historic city, but the purpose was to tear down the worst slums and discourage riots, make the city more accessible, accommodate the new railroads, and beautify Paris. During the administration of Baron Haussmann, 71 miles of new roads, 400 miles of pavement, and 320 miles of sewers were added to Paris; 100, 000 trees were planted, and housing, bridges, and public buildings were constructed.

Public parks which have become so important to us during COVID-19 lockdown were a result of the Garden City Movement, a method of urban planning that was initiated in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard in the UK. Garden cities were intended to be planned, self-contained communities surrounded by “greenbelts”, containing proportionate areas of residences, industry and agriculture. They aimed to capture the primary benefits of a countryside environment and a city environment while avoiding the disadvantages presented by both. Welwyn Garden City is an example of one.

Architectural modernism, the dominant design from the 1920s to the 1970s is based on purity of form, strict geometries, modern materials, and a rejection of ornamentation. These principles responded to the ravages of war and disease that defined the first half of the 20th century. Swiss architect Le Corbusier urged people to strip their homes of needless clutter, eliminate carpets and heavy furniture, and keep the floors and walls clear. The Alton Estate in Roehampton was inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation.

Alton Estate

It is still early days but we can already see how COVID-19 is influencing design for the future. The £2 billion Government fund to improve cycle paths and pedestrian footpaths, brought in to reduce the capacity of need for people to use public transport. This is not new money (was announced in Feb to be spent over 5 years) but the speed of implementation has now changed. It was never the priority for Government or Local Authorities but now it has to be. We are waiting to see the proposals for Putney with much excitement. Previously, a call for removing clutter but now is essential to have markings on the pavements outside shops highlighting the 2 metre social distancing requirements. Restaurants having to look at their spaces and work out how many covers they can fit within latest guidelines for space. The need to utilise public space as ‘outdoor cafes’ so that restaurants, cafes and bars can trade profitably. Will this become a design trend and architects design smaller inside space and more outside space for the hospitality sector? Once the office sector returns will we move away from open plan offices and back to one person cubicles? and we know that many will continue to work from home. Will this help businesses in Putney as all the locals who had previously commuted to work now start using the local facilities?

Research shows that the one common thing people have missed during lockdown all involves social interaction and Putney businesses are looking forward to welcoming you all back as soon as we are able.

The featured image is used with permission from Wellcome Collection.

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