The Urban Infrastructure

Nicholas Papayanis and Rosemary Wakeman

The urban infrastructure is analogous to the internal frame of a building: as the frame is the underlying structural support for the building, the urban infrastructure is the underlying structural foundation of a city. Cities from the earliest times have had infrastructural amenities—roadways and sewers, for example—and all infrastructural development involves the provision of public services and the use of public spaces that are deemed essential for the ability of people to live in the city. Over time an increasingly accepted notion was that circulation of air, sunlight, commerce, vehicles, water, waste matter, people, and even knowledge was as essential to the healthy operation of the city as, to employ another analogy, blood circulating through the human body. What marks the development of the modern infrastructure since the nineteenth century is its close association with technological development, industrialization, and the dramatic growth of city populations. While definitions of the urban infrastructure may include any and all public services, the essential elements of the urban infrastructure during the nineteenth century, the formative period of the modern city, consist of new streets and boulevards, mass transit, new sewage systems, and the provision of gas, water, and electricity. The net effect of these infrastructural developments is the creation of the modern city as a circulatory system designed to move people and material products rapidly and efficiently, both above- and belowground.


Streets are the most basic element of the urban infrastructure. Traditionally they are designed to carry vehicular and pedestrian traffic, transport merchandise, and provide public spaces for social interaction. They also function as conduits for waste matter and, in modern times, house sewage, gas, electrical, and water systems below their surface. On a more fundamental level, streets are essential for access by city dwellers to work sites, markets, and homes. Because streets are public spaces, political, social, and ideological considerations figure in their construction and control. Government authorities are always concerned with street activities as a function of public order and safety. The health of the city is closely related to the street: for example, narrow streets do not permit the circulation of air or the diffusion of sunlight, and streets without effective drains breed disease from stagnant water and waste matter. Thus, whether the construction of streets is financed privately or by the government, control over the street rests with public officials.

Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, London set the standard for street improvements. The Westminster Paving Act of 1762 shifted responsibility for street maintenance from home owners to paving commissioners. The latter had a paid staff and the right to tax abutters for street improvements. By 1800 London had extensive gutters, paving using smooth stones rather than pebbles, sewers, storm drains, piped water, and sidewalks. Street planning also involves aesthetic considerations and social consequences. This is evident in the construction of London’s Regent Street, a south-north thoroughfare designed by John Nash and built mostly from 1817 to 1823. The most significant visual transformation of London at that time, Regent Street was cut in the West End, extending from Portland Place in the north to the Carlton House at the south end. Regent Street was conceived essentially as a magnificent formal street for rich strollers and shoppers, a physical conduit for the wealthy. Thus its placement conformed to existing patterns of social division in London. Given the limited access routes to Regent Street from the poorer East End, the latter was cut off from the more elegant West End, thereby reinforcing social separation. Only between 1832 and 1851, following a series of parliamentary reports, did London planners and government officials begin to address health issues and working-class morals when cutting new streets as part of slum clearance programs.

French government administrators were impressed with English infrastructural advances, and in 1823 G. J. G. Chabrol de Volvic, the prefect of the Seine Department from 1812 to 1830 and the official in charge of administering Paris, paid an official visit to London to study that city’s water distribution system, sewers, and sidewalks. In France he proposed the extension, widening, and paving of Paris streets and roads. His first aim was the creation of a communication network linking all parts of Paris. His second priority was to reform those streets that were important, in his words, “to public security, to sanitation, or to the needs of commerce.” Beautification was his last consideration. He also devised a system for delivery and distribution of water throughout Paris that would assure, he correctly believed, the health of the city. The French government lacked the resources or the political will at that time to implement Chabrol’s vision of a modern Paris. Nevertheless, as Nicholas Papayanis observed in Horse-Drawn Cabs and Omnibuses in Paris (1996), that vision must rank as an important forerunner of Georges Haussmann’s sweeping reforms of the urban infrastructure and therefore of the idea and shape of the modern city.

Although not much progress was made during the French Restoration (1814–1830) in building sidewalks, sixty-five new streets were opened during this regime. The prefect of the Seine Department under the July Monarchy (1830–1848), Claude Rambuteau, began applying English reforms to the rebuilding of the Avenue of the Champs-Elysées and other large boulevards. The pace of street construction accelerated with a total of 112 new streets, including the rue Rambuteau in the center of Paris and intense building speculation on the Right Bank. It remained for the authoritarian empire of Napoleon III and for Haussmann, his chief planner and prefect of the Seine Department, to construct the modern network of Paris roads. Haussmann completed the “great cross” of Paris boulevards that bisected the city in a north-south (the boulevards Saint-Michel and de Sébastopol) and east-west (the rue de Rivoli and the avenue Doumesnil) direction. Built to address strategic, health, economic, and aesthetic considerations first anticipated by Paris intellectuals and administrators before the Second Empire, Haussmann’s neobaroque boulevards also reinforced spatial segregation in Paris. Slum clearance forced workers out of the city center toward the eastern and northern parts of Paris and its suburbs, while the well-to-do concentrated in the northwest of Paris and neighboring suburbs.

By the mid-nineteenth century the link between narrow streets and the health of the city was widely recognized in Europe. At this time Germany, too, adopted the principle of the wide boulevard. Aesthetic and symbolic considerations, however, were the primary factors in the construction of Vienna’s most famous road, the Ringstrasse. As Austria industrialized during the nineteenth century, Vienna, whose upper classes had never abandoned the capital, remained a city for the well-to-do; industry and workers occupied the suburbs. When Austria adopted a constitution in 1860, the bourgeoisie replaced the aristocracy as the governing elite of the country and of Vienna and, as Carl E. Schorske noted in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (1981), proceeded to shape the capital in its own image. The medieval walls that had surrounded the old city were destroyed. Central to the new image was the city’s first grand boulevard, the Ringstrasse, whose monumental public buildings (the opera house, the university, the courts of justice, the houses of parliament, the municipal theater, and the art history and natural history museums) were linked symbolically and architecturally to secular liberal ideals. The massive and ornate apartment houses that occupied the greater length of the Ringstrasse were intended by the Viennese middle classes to suggest the opulent life of the aristocracy. Middle-class planners gave no consideration to social programs for workers.

Two other developments transformed European streets. From the late 1880s streets throughout Europe (and the United States) were paved with asphalt, a smooth, water-resistant surface ideally suited to the automobile. The increased use of automobiles on city streets was a major factor in the demise of the mixed use of streets (for strolling, shopping, and the like), as the requirement for rapid vehicular movement became the street’s principal function. This in turn promoted new forms for streets closely associated with modernism, the urban expressway and the multilevel interchange. The modernist aesthetic was summed up by the architect Le Corbusier in his famous dictum that the street had become “a machine for traffic, an apparatus for its circulation.”


The street as an instrument for vehicular circulation has a long history. From the seventeenth century on, horse-drawn cabs and private coaches became a common feature of urban life in capital cities. Their increased use in Paris and London, the two leading capitals of early and modern Europe in terms of infrastructural advances, corresponded to the physical expansion of the European city, the increase in its population, and the desire of the well-to-do for greater comfort in their daily rounds. The first hackney coaches appeared on London streets in significant numbers in the 1620s. The first regular Paris horse-drawn cab service began operating around 1630. In both cities municipal authorities established strict regulations governing the operation of coaches for hire. Early modern Paris even had a kind of omnibus service briefly. Between 1662 and 1677 a Paris firm owned by three court nobles operated a vehicle, whose invention is commonly ascribed to the philosopher Blaise Pascal, designed for the transportation of a large number of unrelated people. This rectangular coach, the carrosse à cinq sols (five-penny coach), so called because of the price of a single ride, traveled along fixed routes, cost relatively little, and had regular departures whether full or not. Unlike the modern omnibus, however, the law expressly forbade common people to ride in this coach. The cost of all forms of urban transportation limited their regular use to the upper classes until well into the nineteenth century. For the most part the lower classes worked and socialized within walking distance of their homes.

Although the circulation of people and vehicles was becoming a quintessential element of modern urban life, it was only during the eighteenth century that a sophisticated theory of urban communication flow emerged, related both to Adam Smith’s writings on the necessity of capital circulation for a healthy economy and William Harvey’s discovery that blood freely circulates through the healthy body. Urban intellectuals and public officials increasingly saw the ability of people and commerce to circulate freely through the city as a mark of its health.

The great age of public transportation was the nineteenth century, however. New and dramatic urban demographic pressures, significant industrial and commercial expansion, and the continued physical expansion of the city increased the demand for and the supply of public transportation. In Europe, including Great Britain, France led the way in the organization of urban public transit in the first half of the nineteenth century. The number of horse-drawn public cabs in Paris increased from 2,542 in 1819 to 13,655 in 1907. After 1907 the number of horse-drawn cabs began to decline significantly as the number of motor cabs increased. But the first substantial transformation in urban transit in Europe during the horse-drawn era was the introduction in France of the omnibus, a closed, rectangular vehicle with seating capacity initially for fourteen people. Designed to travel along fixed routes for relatively low fares, the modern omnibus admitted people from all classes without restrictions except for those rules governing proper behavior. Omnibuses began to operate in the French provinces before they did in the capital. Nantes had omnibus service in 1826, Bordeaux in 1827. Paris officials, having determined the safety of the vehicle, permitted omnibuses on the central streets of the capital in 1828. In June 1854, in a move later copied in London, Second Empire officials created a unified municipal transit operation by placing all omnibuses under the control of one firm, the Compagnie Générale des Omnibus. In February 1855 they also created a virtual monopoly, which lasted until 1866, of cab service under the control of the Compagnie Générale des Voitures à Paris.

Not everyone was served equally by public transit in Paris. Cabs, with their high fares and small carrying capacity, were never intended for the general populace; but they were ideal vehicles for tourists or the Parisian bourgeoisie. The omnibus initially served the middle classes more than Parisian workers. The first omnibus routes ran in the heart of the well-to-do residential parts of Paris, the Right Bank center and the Left Bank just opposite. At mid-century omnibuses did not begin operating until eight o’clock in the morning, too late for most workers to start off to work, and the two-zone fare of central lines made the omnibus too expensive for most workers. Workers did benefit, however, from increased working opportunities in urban transport.

For urban transport Parisians also had a small circular rail line, la petite ceinture, that tied together the disparate rail stations, none of which penetrated the city center. Beginning in 1867 steam-powered boats operated on the Seine River for travel outside Paris. A small number of horse-drawn trams began running in the 1870s, and one cable car line opened in 1891. Public coaches in France and elsewhere in Europe began converting to motor traction in the 1890s.

London was just behind Paris in the development of mass urban transport. George Shillibeer, who had worked for a Paris coach maker, was impressed with Paris omnibus service. Returning to London, on 4 July 1829 he began operating an omnibus route between Paddington and London. Only after 1832, when the hackney coach monopoly that had governed the operation of London coaches for hire ended, were omnibuses permitted to service the center of London. In 1855 French financiers, along with English associates, took the lead in forming a concentrated omnibus firm that ran about six hundred of the approximately eight hundred omnibuses in London at the time. It was replaced by a largely English firm, the London General Omnibus Company, in 1858. Concentration of urban transport in London, as in Paris, became a characteristic of the industry. Also in Paris, initial fares in London were too high and starting times too late for the omnibus to be of use to workers. Until the 1850s, when fares on larger omnibuses began to drop, it was a vehicle largely for the middle classes, tradespeople, and clerks, allowing them to live farther out from the center of London. People could also get about or to and from London by steamships on the Thames, although these were not all-weather vehicles, by railroads, and, from the 1870s, by horse-drawn trams. Trams ran from the inner suburbs to the London periphery and were prohibited in the central London districts; but because they could carry more people, they charged low fares.

In an additional breakthrough with respect to mass urban transit, tram service throughout Europe was electrified during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century the technology had spread unevenly but had become widespread on the Continent and in Great Britain, with important social consequences. As John P. McKay demonstrated in Tramways and Trolleys (1976), the electric tramcar marked a genuine revolution in urban mass transit, as electric trams covered far greater distances than horse-drawn trams and were far less expensive to operate. These trams contributed far more dramatically than their horse-drawn counterparts to suburbanization, reduced fares, and the opening up of leisure activities for all classes outside the city. They were also important instruments for highly concentrated capital investment.

A second important development in urban transit occurred in London on 10 January 1863, when the line of the world’s first underground urban railway opened. Within six months over 26,000 passengers were riding the underground daily. Fast and comfortable, the London underground railroad also provided special fares for workers. Budapest and Glasgow became subway cities in the 1890s. The Paris Métro, after the London Underground the second most important and extensive European subway, opened on 19 July 1900. Its construction was delayed by a political dispute, between the central government and railway companies on one side and municipal officials on the other, over whether it would be linked to the national rail system or serve only Paris, and by public debates over whether it should be above- or belowground. The city won, but as a result the Paris Métro did not begin to service suburban communities until the late 1920s. Its primary function was to transport all classes quickly and cheaply within Paris. Between the beginning of the twentieth century, the inaugural era of European rapid mass transit, and the 1960s, many more European cites, among them Berlin, Madrid, Rome, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Kiev, and Frankfurt, also became subway cities.


Not only did electricity power Europe’s subways after 1900, it was also the means by which the darkness of night was illumined by powerful, permanent, artificial light. Street lighting, like other infrastructural developments, was a characteristic of the early modern city. Lighting streets and home exteriors by candle was common in the sixteenth century. By the seventeenth century street lanterns, as Wolfgang Schivelbusch showed in Disenchanted Night (1988), became a matter of government policy. This development coincided with the formation of the centralized state and points to a cardinal function of street lighting, namely the state’s control and surveillance of public spaces. Gas lighting, in use in English factories by 1800, moved out onto London streets by 1814. Paris first experimented with gas lighting for streets in 1829, but only after the 1840s did its use become general. German cities began using gas lighting in the 1820s, but its extensive use there dates from the 1850s. Electricity as a source of lighting was introduced in the late 1880s, a great improvement over gas in that it did not consume oxygen, was odorless, and could be turned on and off at will. As Schivelbusch observed, electricity’s use also coincided with and was made possible by the great concentration of capital at that time. Only huge capitalist enterprises could construct and operate the central power stations needed for the city’s supply of electricity for streetlights, homes, and factories. The circulation of electricity throughout the city became a key element, therefore, in creating the circulatory network of infrastructural amenities aboveground, in stimulating the capitalist economy, and in linking homes to central power sources. It integrated those elements more deeply into the urban fabric and opened the night to shopping, theatergoing, and other leisure activities pursued in safety and under the watchful eye of the state.


Water, in the urban setting closely associated with health, also circulated in the city. In 1850 basic urban utilities and sanitary conditions were about the same as they had been for centuries. Water was a precious resource, available only to those who could afford it. The overwhelming majority of urban inhabitants were dependent on river or pump water for domestic use. The London water supply, for example, came mainly from the heavily polluted Thames River. Inadequate amounts were supplied by private companies to wealthier households through rudimentary, leaky wooden pipes that extended only into the basements of houses. The poor took what they could get from local wells or outside taps, which ran only a few hours or a few days each week. In the new industrial towns whole neighborhoods were sometimes without water even from local wells. Most of the water for Paris originated from the Ourcq Canal and was used to supply public wells and fountains. In 1840 neither the kitchen nor the privy in a middle-class Parisian flat had running water. Water carriers sold from the streets, but the poor filled their pails from public outlets or scooped water from the gutters. In Vienna, Moscow, and St. Petersburg, insufficient water remained a serious problem. Street sellers hawked bucketfuls to residents until well into the nineteenth century. In Moscow water was so scarce that it was rationed to institutions. Only in Berlin, where the groundwater level was a few meters below the surface, did inhabitants easily supply themselves with well water.

Cities did not have adequate waste removal systems until the second half of the nineteenth century. Few towns had sewers, and storm water mixed with animal excrement and other wastes flowed through street gutters directly into rivers. The most commonly employed methods of disposing of human waste products were the belowground privy and the cesspool system. Night soil was carted beyond the town limits and used as fertilizer on nearby farms, or it was dumped into watercourses or onto vacant land. Even along the most elegant streets of Berlin, such as the Leipzigerstrasse, the contents of privies were emptied at night by brigades of women, filling the air with appalling odors. London and Paris had rudimentary disposal systems that had originally been constructed only for the drainage of storm water. While solid waste stored in cesspools or casks was carted away, liquid waste was emptied directly into the street gutters. In Paris the twenty-six kilometers of drainage ditches kept up by private contractors often overflowed in a downpour. The city’s stench and filth invariably horrified visitors. Enterprising businessmen appeared with planks during rainstorms and charged pedestrians a small fee to cross open sewers on their boards. London’s sewer system was composed of a hodgepodge of gutters, underground drains, and open drains administered by eight different commissioners. Even in the capital cities with rudimentary utilities, the size and quality of drains varied widely. Large drains emptied into smaller ones, and few were built with any incline. The plans and locations of ancient networks of conduits and water pipes were often long forgotten or lost. Europe’s towns and cities fell into a crisis of basic services with every storm or dry spell.


The modern underground circulatory system of the European city began to take shape with the urban hygiene movement of the mid-nineteenth century. Chronic cholera and typhoid epidemics during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had thoroughly shaken both the public and the authorities. In particular the cholera epidemic that swept through Europe’s cities in 1832, claiming 5,300 victims in London and 20,000 in Paris, provided the impetus for sanitary reform and prodded the redesign and expansion of underground drainage systems during the 1850s and 1860s. The increased interest in urban hygiene was also stimulated by massive increases in population. Between 1800 and 1850 the population doubled in some cities. The population of Paris went from 547,000 to 1,053,000, that of London from 1,117,000 to 2,685,000, and that of Berlin from 172,000 to 419,000. It was difficult to supply the growing population with services from wells, river water was increasingly polluted, and sewer systems were already inadequate and overtaxed. Cesspools overflowed. Common drainage ditches became elongated cesspools filled with uncovered, stagnant excrement. With industrialization, factories along the water’s edge increased the demand for pure water used in manufacturing but at the same time pushed water pollution to the extremes of crisis.

Perhaps the most important reason for the increased awareness of hygienic problems in Europe was the sanitary movement in Great Britain. Edwin Chadwick’s reports on hygienic conditions in urban areas, published as Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain in 1842, brought to light the inadequacies in the provisioning of basic urban utilities. The streets, courts, and alleys where cholera and typhoid first broke out and were most deadly were invariably in the immediate vicinity of open sewers, stagnant ditches and ponds, gutters filled with putrefying waste, and privies. Disease and ill health in Chadwick’s opinion were a major cause of destitution and pauperism and a burden on the tax-payer. Conditions could improve only with investments in urban sanitation, the removal of waste, and an improved water supply.

Chadwick and his group of social reformers known as the “sanitary school” argued that clean springwater could be steam pumped, as the heart of a new urban circulatory system, through pipes or veins into every tenement, which would be supplied with a water closet. Each tenement would be connected to a sloped sewer system that used gravity to flush out waste. The sewers or arteries would then conduct their contents to sewerage farms for fertilizer. Filtered through the soil, the waste would be collected by a drainage system that flowed to the nearest river and eventually to the sea. Chadwick’s urban reformers believed that their arterial sanitation system—decades ahead of its time—was a cure-all for the social question.

Within the next few decades a complete reconsideration of the dual questions of water supply and waste removal led to a revolution in public utilities. By the beginning of the twentieth century, most towns and cities in northwestern Europe had comprehensive water systems under public ownership that supplied the urban population with clean water. Sewer systems, built at enormous cost and designed for the removal of storm water, wastewater, and human waste products, had been built or were being planned.

However inadequate and overtaxed, London remained the standard against which continental cities measured their own shortcomings. Early urban renovation projects, such as the construction of Regent Street and Regent’s Park, provided opportunities to open the underground and install new networks of drains and sewers, waterworks, and a canal. The City Commission of Sewers constructed some forty-four miles of huge sewers. With the manufacture of cheap metal water pipes and improved methods of steam pumping, private companies supplied water from the Thames to first- and second-story water closets. Running water and the invaluable new water-closet appliance made dwellings in London’s favored districts an unimaginable luxury in comparison to contemporary Vienna and Paris. Fixed baths came somewhat later, but as early as 1840 they were frequently found in London’s newer houses. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of the city’s poorer inhabitants remained without access to any services at all, even communal water spigots. Long lines of people, pails in hand, stood for a turn at the nearest outdoor faucet the few hours the water supply was turned on. In winter the faucets froze. Private companies had no obligation to provide piped water to the poor, and few landlords were willing to invest in utility improvements. Only half the buildings in London were connected to sewers in 1848.

The City Sewers Act of 1848 required installation of water cisterns and drains connected to sewer lines in all new houses in London. The city could also compel owners of existing buildings to provide them. The Metropolitan Water Act of 1852 required that private water companies obtain their water supplies from unpolluted sections of the Thames River, cover their reservoirs, filter their water, and furnish a constant supply of water in those districts that demanded it. In 1855 the indirectly elected Metropolitan Board of Works was established with responsibility for managing public works, and sewering, paving, cleansing, and supplying water came under general public control. Joseph Bazelgette, leader of the board’s engineers, designed a sewer system that relied on underground sloping conduits connected to the old drainage pipes that would flush waste west to east across London and then deposit it into the Thames far below the built-up area. However, during the very hot summer of 1858 the board deadlocked over the location of the sewer outlets. The pollution in the Thames became so intolerable that it was known as the “great stink” of 1858 and became a national scandal, eventually pushing the government into breaking the impasse. Bazelgette’s metropolitan sewer system, completed in 1865, was one of the greatest engineering feats of the nineteenth century. Sewers eighty-two miles in length were built in or tunneled beneath London and washed away 420 million gallons of waste and rainwater daily almost entirely by gravity. Circular or oval in shape, the brick sewers varied from four to twelve feet in diameter. The most notable addition was the Victoria Embankment along the Thames, built essentially as a lid to cover both the main sewer conduit and the underground Metropolitan Railway. The ongoing excavations for Bazelgette’s work, which continuously disrupted the streets and traffic of London, provided visible evidence of the radical transformation taking place underground.


Spurred by the shock of cholera and the example of the British public health movement, a new approach to sanitation practices took shape in Paris as well. The city began building new systems to distribute water and evacuate waste that would help, according to urban reformers, cleanse the city not only of its sewage but of the underlying causes of social and revolutionary turmoil. H. C. Emmery, the head of the Paris sewer system from 1832 to 1839, placed fountains at the heads of streets in northeastern, working-class districts. Water from the fountains washed into new gutters under sidewalks and emptied into sewer drains. While traditionally sewers had been built with hewn stone, engineers began substituting millstone and cement mortar, which allowed the introduction of curved sewer floors that made flushing easier, as did construction on a regular incline. Like all later sewers, they were large enough to allow a man to move around standing up. The conduits flowed into central collectors that drained directly into the Seine River. In 1852 the Paris prefecture ordered installation of direct sewer hookups for wastewater in all new buildings. When the last open sewer was covered in 1853, Paris already had 143 kilometers of sewer lines. But serious problems remained. New building construction strained even these improvements, and the sewers continued to overflow into the streets with every downpour. Twice daily, after the public fountains opened and the sewers emptied into the Seine, the river darkened, and the two pumps that siphoned water from the river for Parisians’ use were clogged with fetid liquid.

During the Second Empire, Napoleon III saw the continued modernization of the sewage and water systems as fundamental to the transformation of Paris into an imperial city. According to Haussmann, the excavations for street building were an unparalleled opportunity to construct an underground urban circulatory system free of blocked arteries and foul orifices. They would function like the organs of the human body, and fresh water, light, and heat would circulate like the fluids that support life. He proposed an expanded dual water-supply system for the city. Water for domestic consumption would be brought via aqueducts from distant springs. New waterways and portions of ancient Roman aqueducts were incorporated into the extensive system that brought water to Paris from the Dhuys, the Vanne, and the Marne Rivers. Water from the Ourcq Canal and the Seine River would be used only for industrial purposes and to supply public fountains.

While the length of Paris streets doubled during the Second Empire urban renovation projects, the sewer system grew more than fivefold. Old sewers were rebuilt to meet new standards. Haussmann’s engineers continued the earlier practice of making the sewers large enough to permit workmen to repair and cleanse them. In the plan developed by the government engineer Eugène Belgrand, the narrower drains flowed into three main outfall collectors (five by the turn of the century) that served as the large intestine of the system and discharged waste into the Seine northwest of Paris rather than in the city. Belgrand realized that a constant flow of water would be far less effective as a means of cleansing than periodic concentrated purgings. Water for this purpose was trapped in small reservoirs fed with river water throughout the system. The reservoirs numbered more than four thousand at the turn of the century, and sluice carts and boats in the collectors facilitated the flushing.

Between 1788 and 1907 the length of sewer per inhabitant increased eighty-fourfold. The extension of the sewer system contributed significantly to the decline of waterborne epidemic disease in Paris. The sewer tunnels housed two sets of water mains, one for drinking water and one for water from the Seine River used to clean streets and to water city parks. Telegraph and telephone wires, pneumatic tubes for the postal service, tubes carrying compressed air, and later the traffic control electrical system stretched across the roofs of conduit galleries. By the turn of the century, tours of the sewers were offered every two weeks during the summer; six hundred curious visitors took the voyage each time.

In the early 1850s modern urban hygiene also began in Berlin. In 1852 a privately owned water supply system was constructed, although no facilities were provided for sewer drainage. The sewage question was turned over to a municipal commission, which after years of study recommended the plan of Police President James Hobrecht, a German engineer whose social ideas closely matched those of Chadwick. Hobrecht’s plan included a combined water-carriage system, dividing the city into small drainage areas, and pumping urban sewage through an underground pipe system to numerous sewerage farms on the city’s outskirts. Work on the project began in 1873, and plans were also made for a new, municipally owned water supply. The Hobrecht plan remained in force virtually unaltered until 1919.

Throughout the nineteenth century Europe’s capital cities, especially London and Paris, led the way in sanitation reform. National governments cared more about their capital cities, which more easily found money for the massive investments required for sanitation improvements. Other towns and cities lagged far behind, especially in southern and eastern Europe. At a time when Paris had already built new water and sewerage systems, the population of Marseille still drank polluted water from the Durance River. As a result Marseille was the site of the last major cholera epidemic in France in 1884. Lyon began to construct modern water and sewage facilities in the 1880s. Even in Vienna running water, central heating, and fixed baths reached only a small proportion of residential buildings in the late nineteenth century. In 1910 no more than 7 percent of all dwellings had bathrooms, and only 22 percent had private water closets. Kitchens in all but luxury flats rarely had a water supply but instead depended on the water basin in the public corridor. Italian cities, including Naples, Turin, Bologna, and Venice, in the 1880s began civic improvements such as street renovations, sewer systems, and slum clearance. Not until the 1930s were water and sewage taken over by public management in Italy.


The later reform programs were also shaped by the vast processes of suburbanization that drastically changed the form and landscape of the city. The great underground networks of services that were constructed during the nineteenth century transformed the central districts of Europe’s great cities. But little was done to alleviate the dearth of services in the slum districts and squatter settlements spreading from densely built, working-class quarters into the outlying districts. Water supplies from wells and latrine services were shared at common sites far from dwellings, and residents were at the mercy of speculators. Although cholera and typhoid fever had largely been conquered, tuberculosis, which was directly linked to squalid living conditions, remained a major scourge. Slum clearance was consistently offered as the solution to the continued public health and social crisis.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the garden city ideal was promoted by architect-planners, such as Ebenezer Howard in England, Tony Garnier and Henri Sellier in France, and Ernst May in Germany, as slum replacement. Garden cities, made up of cottages and modest apartments outfitted with gas, electricity, and modern kitchen and bathroom facilities and surrounded by green space, would create a utopian working-class environment. The ideal emphasized gas and water municipal reform that would provide utilities on a nonprofit basis. Engineering systems were to constitute the largest set of municipal services in new towns designed for working-class suburbs. Although only a small number of garden cities were constructed, they provided the model for the extension of the vast underground gas, water, and sewer systems later deemed a vital part of urban life. Public housing projects along the peripheries of London, Paris, and Berlin carried out the ideal in the 1920s with solidly built structures supplied with modern utilities. But the extension of the underground services was long and costly and required the incorporation of vast suburban areas under a unified administrative jurisdiction. The difficulties involved in providing basic services to the growing suburbs was one important reason why planners turned away from the garden city ideal. Instead, by the 1940s Le Corbusier’s vision of vast apartment towers and complexes was seen as a more efficient way to build and provision the water, sewage, gas, and electricity networks required for the growing numbers of families calling metropolitan regions their home. The inner workings of the human body no longer served as the metaphor for urban infrastructure and planning. The new image was the Corbusian machine for living, the the efficient, geometrically designed and engineered corridors and networks of the harmonious city.

See alsoThe Environment; Health and Disease (volume 2);Public Health (volume 3); Cleanliness (volume 4); and other articles in this section.


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The Urban Infrastructure by the government engineer
Encyclopedia of European Social History

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