Sanitation and Segregation in the City



The kids of poor natives in Abadan 1940's Credit: Corbis
The kids of poor natives in Abadan 1940’s
Credit: Corbis
Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
[ From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” ]


The politics of sanitation and public health did not create only an inclusive and universal dynamic of citizenship entitlement to a healthy and safe living environment. They also gave rise to a counter dynamic of exclusionary ‘quarantinism’ that led to the spatial segregation of the poor, the “dangerous classes”, and the contaminated. The combination of the sanitary idea with the increasing commodification of urban space through speculation in landed property and housing gave impetus to the increasing social segregation of urban neighborhoods by class, race, and social difference. The rich simply moved to safer areas they could afford.
Technological innovations, such as electricity, commuter railways, and motorcars, allowed the more affluent to move away from dangerous and contaminated cities, into suburbs that had begun colonizing the countryside. There they could enjoy the amenities of urban life thanks to mass produced household appliances without having to live in the city, or to pay the heftier property taxes to support the construction and maintenance of expensive urban infrastructure[28]. Even utilitarian social plans such as those of Ebenezer Howard for creating unified communities of rich and poor, living and working side by side in peri-urban ‘garden cities’, were initially lauded as humanitarian and visionary innovations, only to be adopted and turned into idyllic and exclusive suburban communities for the rich[29]. Ironically, just as the availability of urban sanitation for all was becoming an obsession by the end of the 19th century, the new knowledge of contagious diseases also became the basis for new social strife and class conflict. The scientific correlation of vulnerability to epidemics with poverty and poor living conditions became a political weapon for the urban poor and the working classes to demand better living conditions, and to hold the propertied classes responsible for their situation; especially as they could now use quantifiable scientific data to argue that human overcrowding was not in itself debilitating if material conditions improved and there were good jobs and decent wages to go with it[30]. As for the middle classes, they could blame the prevailing “culture of poverty” in urban slums as the fertile ground for contagious diseases, and strive to avoid the danger of contamination by moving away into their exclusive enclaves. This was the dynamic that turned urban space into an intensely contested terrain of conflict and negotiation. R.K. Home claims that Britain became the chief exporter of municipalities and urban planning measures in its vast colonies[31]. The primary driving motives, and the vision that defined British-influenced urban planning and municipal reform in the first half of the 20 century were the adoption of sanitary measures against contagious diseases; as well as the related and parallel idea of racial, functional, and class segregations[32]. In Abadan the historical and epistemological context of municipal and urban improvements emerged partly out of this British and colonial heritage of sanitary measures, especially as the urgency of social reforms had become more generally accepted after WWI. There are several important aspects of these municipal and sanitary practices that I will outline below that are of particular significance to the analysis of the urban changes that took place in Abadan in chapter 6. First, the accumulation of scientific knowledge about the causes of contagious diseases, and the implementation of policies to reduce their risk, required the populations to become visible to the scientific gaze[33]. Congested neighborhoods and mobile and anonymous populations were simply not conducive to the production of statistical knowledge. The problem was most acute in port cities were soldiers, sailors, migrants, casual workers, prostitutes, smugglers, settlers, bureaucrats, slaves, tribesmen, and workers came and went, often anonymously and without any records. R.K.Home discusses four waves of professional experts that led the assault on existing urban fabrics to replace them with a new urban geography characterized by individually mapped and registered private properties, wide avenues, sanitary urban infrastructures, residential enclaves segregated by race and class, and variations of a planned urban grid systems that would make each unit distinct and visible to inspection and evaluation. These successive waves of professional experts were land surveyors and cartographers, followed by engineers, sanitary specialists, and eventually architects and urban planners, who oversaw urban change from mid 19th century to WW2[34]. This attempt to re-engineer urban space and to modernize and sanitize it took place almost simultaneously in British cities, as well as in the colonial cities such as Singapore, Cairo, Delhi, and Calcutta[35]. Second, the “sanitary syndrome” was the scientific justification and a major driving force behind the urban transformations of pre WW2 era. However, a common feature of urban spatial re-engineering was the imposition of segregated spaces to keep apart and to hierarchically organize the population, including Europeans and various classes of the indigenous population. European colonizers tended to blame the indigenous population for epidemics; with plague represented as “the filth disease of the Chinese”, and India portrayed as “a factory of plague” in international sanitary conferences like 1897 Venice, or in the growing number of scientific journals[36]. As a result, their response to sanitary reform and urban improvement tended to be coercive, albeit wrapped in scientific justification. As spatial segregation became an integral feature of the modern urban design, it generated increasing political and social friction and resentment among ordinary people at a time when the ideas of citizenship and entitlement to equal amenities were taking hold in the era of mass politics. In India, for example, the practice of urban segregation in redesigned cities in the aftermath of the 1857 Mutiny, angered the un-represented inhabitants who were expected to pay for public works, but were now being displaced to make room for modern sanitary improvements and the monumental architecture that was being erected to glorify imperial rule. This resentment fed the rising tide of nationalism among people dislocated and forced to live in inferior areas, and without any say in how their cities were being planned.
Colonialism and capitalism had exacerbated fast urbanization and the frequency and virulence of contagions, just as they were seeking scientific methods of prevention and cure. Grand colonial urban projects were changing the cities in the name of improving sanitary conditions, but while affluent and European neighborhoods thrived the poor continued to suffer. In the two decades prior to WWI more than 7 million people died of plague in the urban slums of India, only intensifying the resentment against the ever more visible urban segregation and inequality[37].
Increasingly, the idea of spatial segregation became contested by a growing array of people, ranging from indigenous elites who felt discriminated, the subaltern classes who felt vulnerable and threatened by the inferior infrastructures and municipal services that was leaving them at the mercy of killer epidemics, and even by European urban planners who questioned the logic of segregation based on scientific grounds. A prominent example of the latter was the urban planning pioneer William Geddes. After his extensive travels in India Geddes questioned Lutyen’s 1911 redesign of Imperial Delhi based on racially segregated neighborhoods, by pointing out that it simply did not work as intended since plague infested rats merely moved from place to place, and the indigenous servants and domestics that were so integral to colonial life lived in or had contacts in urban slums. Geddes was also highly critical of the monumentality of the imperially redesigned cities in India, with their grand boulevards and public spaces built on demolished older urban fabric. He pointed out that in these new imperial public spaces all sorts of people mingled together, subverting the whole justification for segregation based on sanitary claims. He reminded his audience that the same mingling took place in workspaces occupied by Europeans and their colonial workers and subjects[38]. Geddes also considered the large-scale demolition of urban neighborhoods and displacement of poor populations as “one of the most disastrous and pernicious blunders in the checkered history of sanitation”[39].
The prominent and influential colonial medical administrator William Simpson (1855-1931)[40] who had left his imprint on urban transformations across the empire, and became one of the targets of the criticism of Geddes and others who objected to the segregated landscape of urban colonial modernity. Simpson’s proposed remedies, which became accepted as conventional scientific wisdom and implemented widely, involved the wholesale creative destruction of the old urban fabric of narrow and winding streets and closely packed houses, and their replacement with well-ventilated and individualized residential units, good drainage system, rigorous waste disposal, sewerage, piped and treated drinking water, open spaces and wide avenues. Underlying all these drastic measures was an insistence on residential segregation by race, and the imposition of rigid control over the living habits of the population[41].
These grand projects and coercive practices had many beneficial results, including for the indigenous population, but also proved to be tremendously disruptive and costly to the lives of ordinary people as they were intended to act as mechanisms to reinforce the colonial political hierarchy. As Geddes pointed out, more than anything else these grand schemes empowered the new professional experts who were now in charge of planning and implementing them. They secured and made safer the lives of Europeans as well as the indigenous elites, while the vast majority of the population remained excluded from their benefits, and often found themselves worse off as victims of mass slum clearance, or increased congestion and concentration of poverty following mass eviction and forced re-allocations. Proposals for less disruptive and more cooperative alternative solutions were often ignored or simply dismissed. For example, Geddes argued that much of the traditional systems of water provision could have been improved with minor anti malaria measures[42]. Such attempts at improving traditional systems of urban infrastructure were being tried elsewhere. For example in Iran in 1906, Dr A.R. Neligan successfully experimented with the use of gold fish, ducks, and frogs as natural larvicides in traditional water reservoirs[43]. Egypt’s largest port Alexandria, remained a relatively healthy city during the 1899 plague epidemic as colonial authorities acted more sensitively to local cultural concerns, and instead of imposing racial segregation and wholesale urban displacement and demolition they collaborated with traditional medical practitioners and healers, including midwives and women Hakima, to contain epidemics and prevent their spread[44].
In other words, as contemporary critiques of the colonial notions and practices of trusteeship were arguing, progress and modernity were not necessarily incompatible with existing cultural practices and traditional systems of urban management; nor was spatial segregation simply a scientific solution to sanitary problems, as it claimed to be. Of course, spatial segregation was not exclusive to colonial or capitalist modernization. Urban neighborhoods in Iran, or Iraq, for example, had been historically segregated, especially along sectarian and religious lines. But these had been an occasional and only partial segregations based on cultural preferences and discriminations; not justified on the grounds of sanitary and scientific rationality[45].
As we shall see in chapter 6, these sanitary and segregationist practices were instrumental in shaping the urban built environment of Abadan in the post war period, and demonstrate how local, national, and global practices of industrial and extractive capitalism, and the new modes of governmentality and social disciplining in the post war era of nation states were geographically intertwined.



Notes :
28. Peter Hall, Cities of Tomorrow (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988); John Burnett, A Social History of Housing 1815-1985, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1986); Dolores Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing, and Family Life, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002); Dolores Hayden, Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790 – 1975 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1979).

29. Stephen Ward, “The Garden City Tradition Re-Examined,” Planning Perspectives 5 (1990): 249–56; Meryl Aldridge, “Only Demi-Paradise? Women in Garden Cities and New Towns,” Planning Perspectives 11 (1996): 23–39; Hall, Cities of Tomorrow.

30. Chevalier, Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes, 15, 31–32, 186.

31. Robert Home, Of Planting and Planning: The Making of British Colonial Cities (London: E & FN Spon, 1997), 1. French colonialism, as well as American colonization of its continental west augured similar municipal practices. On French colonial municipal practices see Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1991); Paul Rabinow, The French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991); Zeynep Çelik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers Under French Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Janet Abu-Lughod, Rabat, Urban Apartheid in Morocco (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981). On the regional and urban politics during its westward colonization in the US see William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West ( New York: Norton, 1992).

32. Beinart and Hughes, Environment and Empire, 160–163; Home, Of Planting and Planning; King,
Colonial Urban Development.

33. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977).

34. Home, Of Planting and Planning, Chapter 2. Arnold Wilson was a typical example of a proficient and exceptionally capable professional who served in India, Iran and Iraq as soldier, surveyor, cartographer, ethnographer, intelligence gatherer, political analyst, diplomat, police commissioner, regional administrator, national administrator, and corporate manager. He performed these tasks successively, and often simultaneously. Dr. M. Young was another example of a standout professional expert who served APOC for over two decades as physician, public health administrator, diplomatic negotiator, political consultant, and corporate strategist. See chapters 1, 2, 3.

35. Colonial cities, as well as designed model villages, in fact provided fertile experimental grounds for coercive innovations that would have proved too controversial at home. Brenda Yeoh’s investigation of changing street names in Singapore preceding major renewal of the old urban fabric, Tim Mitchell’s analysis of similar renaming of streets of Cairo and Alexandria, and the construction of model villages to house displaced peasants and to modernize them; and Dossal and King’s analysis of the mapping and renovations of Delhi and Bombay provide comparative examples of similar practices across the empire, before some of these policies were implemented in British cities. See Brenda Yeoh,
Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003); Timothy Mitchell, Colonizing Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 54–122; Home, Of Planting and Planning; King, Colonial Urban Development; Keya Dasgupta, “A City Away from Home: The Mapping of Calcutta,” in Texts of Power, ed. Partha Chatterjee (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995); Miriam Dossal, Imperial Design and Indian Realities: The Planning of Bombay City 1855-75 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991).

36. Beinart and Hughes, Environment and Empire, 171; Home, Of Planting and Planning, 75. The 1897 Indian Epidemics Diseases Act blamed the recurrence of plague on the indigenous population and proposed drastic coercive measures to deal with the problem, such as soldiers breaking into homes to inspect the inhabitants, dragging away and isolating those suspected of being ill, digging our dirt floors, applying aggressive disinfection measures, and controlling the movement of population. Ibid., 76

37. Home, Of Planting and Planning, 74–75; Beinart and Hughes, Environment and Empire, 174; Evans, “Epidemics and Revolutions.”

38. Robert Grant Irving, Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker, and Imperial Delhi (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 87–89; Beinart and Hughes, Environment and Empire, 161–167; King,
Colonial Urban Development, 183–184.

39. Home, Of Planting and Planning, 79. This was in contrast to the French colonial model of the reification of Casba (across North Africa) as a traditional space to be preserved for its authenticity, instead of viewed as a living and thriving space that had been constantly changing with historical flows. See Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism; Rabinow, The French Modern; Çelik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations.

40. In his long and influential career Simpson served as Chief Medical Officer in India, Commissioner in charge of investigating and dealing with outbreaks of plague and cholera in Cape Colony, Gold Coast, Mesopotamia, Hong Kong; professor of Hygiene in Kings College London, and the founder of the Ross Institute and Hospital for Tropical Diseases.

41. Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore; Home, Of Planting and Planning, 75–84; Beinart and Hughes, Environment and Empire, 170–177; Myron Echenberg, Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague, 1894-1901 (New York: New York University Pre s, 2010); Prashant Kidambi, “‘An Infection of Locality’: Plague, Pythogenesis and the Poor in Bombay, C. 1896-1905,”
Urban History 31, no. 2 (2004): 249–67.
42. Home, Of Planting and Planning, 79.

43. Neligan, “Public Health in Persia, Part2,” 693.

44. Echenberg, Plague Ports, 83–106. For the counter example of suppressing local knowledge and its consequences, especially for women, see Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 127–143; Khaled Fahmy, “Women, Medicine and Power in 19th Century Egypt,” in Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East, ed. Lila Abu-Lughod (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 233–79.

45. Beinart and Hughes, Environment and Empire, 174; Kaveh Ehsani, “The Politics of Public Space in Tehran,” City and Society, under review 2015; Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movement In Iraq (Saqi Books, 2004), Ch. 2.


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