A Reflection on Joel A. Tarr’s “The Metabolism of the Industrial City”

Tarr’s essay focuses upon the very real fact that “cities cannot exist without…clean air, water, food, fuel and construction goods” and therefore leaves a large ecological footprint on the region (Boehm 276). In many ways, this relationship between the urban center and the hinterland is parasitic as the city feeds upon the surrounding area in order to maintain operation. Often, as Tarr admits, the very actions taken by the city dwellers and developers to procure these necessities exacerbates the problem of their destruction. By looking to the history of Pittsburgh, this essay presents a case for evaluating the extent of the impact of urban metabolism. In the case of Pittsburgh, polluted waterways serve as the “tell tale heart” so to speak. As a result of massive workforce influx and a large disparity between working class and affluent communities, the problem of sewage became one, not just of economic difficulty, but of sheer volume. With no central sewage or mapping to speak of, the waste of Pittsburgh sat stagnant and led to airborne disease and bacterial infection at rates that dwarfed most other American cities. When water was finally set up for domestic delivery via pipeline, naturally, the less affluent areas were given limited access and far less potable water. Obviously, this lead to epidemic levels of disease as populations were stacked on top of one another in what was essentially their own filth. The hardships suffered were mainly the result of city planning and management that cared very little for anything but capital as business was the foundation of settlement. Commissions and councils ruled and regulated based on capital gain and speculative capital opportunity. Waterways leading out of the city were used for dumping pollutants and delivery of water and other resources were limited by potential revenue. Even after sewage systems were mandated, many residents, unable to afford the charges for the new system, refused to switch over leading to more typhoid deaths and an amazingly uncharted septic landscape. The sheer disregard for the pollution of waterways is no greater apparent than in noting that until 1959, Pittsburgh and seventy one surrounding municipalities had yet to stop discharging raw sewage into the abutting rivers or began treating their wastes in any way (Boehm 281).

Tarr also goes on to develop the history of smoke pollution in the city due to the abundance of bituminous coal in the region and shows that eerily similar circumstances take place regarding its regulation and maintenance. The cycle of pollution versus desire to increase expenditures continues on much the same way to this day. As Tarr mentions, in most cases, private citizens are the only ones who can really get anything done and usually those attempts are limited and temporary in scope. If the metabolism of the modern city involves a process of obtaining, devouring, and dispensing regional resources for sustenance, then it is my belief that most cities are suffering from indigestion.

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