Today is Blog Action Day, and the topic is water. I did a post for this last year when the topic was climate change, so I figured I’d do it again. Water is obviously a huge issue, especially in the arid Southwest, so there are a lot of directions I could go with this. I did an earlier post on the importance of water at Chaco, which is certainly worth linking in this context. For Blog Action Day, however, I thought a discussion of a rather different issue, a bit far from my usual fare here, would be interesting.
One of the most noteworthy characteristics of urban sprawl is inefficient use of land, symbolized most obviously by the suburban development pattern of single-family houses on large lots. Whatever space on these lots is not covered by the building footprint or a driveway is typically divided into yards. Front and back yards are nearly universal in suburbia, and found at a smaller scale in some urban areas as well, and on particularly large lots side yards are found as well. These yards are generally interpreted today as being for recreational use, and backyards in particular often have recreational amenities like swimming pools, but at least in my experience people don’t seem to use this space for recreational purposes to nearly the degree you might expect given the sheer amount of it. Maintaining a yard is also a major effort in time and resources, especially if it is covered with a grass lawn which requires regular mowing and (at least in more arid regions) watering. The amount of energy and water expended on these activities is huge, and for what? A big empty space that isn’t generally used for much of anything. This is not to disparage the choices of people who prefer to have large amounts of space on their property or like maintaining lawns, just to say that I really don’t understand the appeal, and judging by the popularity of apartment-style living where it is available it seems I’m not alone. Plenty of people, it seems, find the amounts of open space provided by public parks and other public or semi-public areas to be perfectly adequate for their needs. And yet, we still have all these yards. In most suburban areas they are essentially mandated by setback requirements in zoning and subdivision codes.
So how did we get here? Obviously it’s a complicated story, and I’m sure there are many different parts to the answer. One important aspect of the story that doesn’t seem to get much attention is described by Jon Peterson in an article on the nineteenth-century sanitary reform movement and its influence on American urban planning. As Peterson describes it, the origin of the yard is something of a byproduct of a series of important changes in urban sanitation and waste management in response to the rise of the industrial city.
Up until about 1850, every house in America, rural or urban, had two things which were absolutely necessary for life: a well and a cesspool. In rural areas, where most people were farmers, everyone had lots of land, so siting these so that contamination of the water supply was not a major issue would presumably have been pretty easy in most places. Even in towns, lots were generally large enough to maintain a safe distance between the well and the cesspool. In preindustrial cities, lots were smaller than in typical towns, but there was still no public provision of water or sewerage, so people still had wells and outhouses on their small urban lots, and disease could be a problem. As long as cities remained small, however, these problems were manageable. Garbage, too, would generally be stored on-site until someone took it away, and waste kitchen and washing water would often be dumped right into the street. There were sewers, but they were used exclusively for carrying away excess stormwater and preventing flooding (basically like storm sewers today), and dumping waste in them was illegal.
The problems with this system, such as it was, became most glaringly apparent once industrial growth led to massive increases in city size. This happened first in Britain, where by the early nineteenth century the filthy conditions of fast-growing cities were atrocious, and the decision to deal with the problem by allowing waste to be dumped in sewers only made things worse. Remember, these were storm sewers, and water only flowed through them when it rained. The rest of the time, all sorts of waste accumulated and clogged them up. By the 184os it was clear that the problem had reached crisis proportions, and the social reformer Edwin Chadwick came up with the idea of dealing with it by introducing a system by which water would be provided to houses and used to flush waste through a system of sewer pipes laid out so as to use gravity to carry the waste away. This was known as “water-carriage sewerage,” and it was the principle upon which all subsequent sewer systems were based. The full implementation of the idea in a slightly different form in London came in the 1860s under Joseph Bazalgette.
In the US, industrialization had not yet progressed very far at that point, but the nation’s few cities were growing, and other factors were making the waste problem worse. Probably the most important was the introduction of public water supply in the 1840s. Once people no longer had to depend on their own wells (which would become less productive as more people moved into the area with their own wells, lowering the water table) or cisterns, they began to use vastly more water, much more than the engineers who designed the water systems had anticipated, and the excess water overloaded the cesspools and created many of the same problems that British cities had been experiencing for a while. US sanitary reforms were impressed with the sewerage ideas coming out of Britain and argued for sewer systems to be implemented in American cities. Boston and New York, which had the biggest problems, accordingly put in extensive but largely uncoordinated sewer lines in the 1850s and 1860s.
In the 1870s, as industrialization began to take hold and American cities began to grow rapidly, the problems with the traditional water and waste disposal systems became apparent to more and more cities, and the use of sewers proliferated from then on. This led to a considerable improvement in urban public health, although the other health problems resulting from the expansion of urban industry may have made this improvement less apparent at the time than it is from our perspective today.
So what does all this have to do with yards? Peterson mentions briefly, near the end of his article, what he calls an “illustrative but little appreciated impact of sanitary reform upon urban land use,” namely, new uses for the space on urban lots formerly occupied by wells and cesspools. Once urban households had running water and water-carriage sewerage, they no longer needed to devote space outside the house to these necessities of life, and they could use that space instead for recreation. Thus, the yard was born. In the biggest and fastest-growing cities, of course, rising land values in the late nineteenth century led most of these earlier lots to be bought up and used to build tenements, skyscrapers, and other high-density uses that maximized the amount of the lot used productively and destroyed both the houses and the yards that had been there before. In smaller cities and towns, however, this didn’t happen to nearly the degree it did in places like New York and Chicago, and the yard remained. Around the turn of the century civic improvement associations around the country associated with the City Beautiful movement encouraged the planting of grass, flowers, and other plants in these vacant parts of household lots to beautify them. This is the origin of the lawn. Later, this particular idea of beauty would be incorporated into the self-consciously suburban developments of the 1920s, and from there to the sprawl of today. And so here we are, with big empty spaces filled with grass, the result of technological improvements in sanitation intersecting with emerging ideas of civic beauty.
Peterson JA (1979). The impact of sanitary reform upon American urban planning, 1840-1890. Journal of social history, 13 (1), 83-103 PMID: 11632375