Becoming Boston

Managing a Modern City

Looking to address the challenges of changing and contested urban geographies, reformers, administrators, and citizens began to institute programs for regulating urban space.

To many people living in Boston during its industrial boom years, the dynamism and growth of the modern city seemed constantly at risk of spiraling out of control. Urban development led to issues ranging from catastrophic fires to tangled streetcar traffic. Waves of epidemics, the dismal quality of rivers and coastlines, and the destruction of natural spaces on the city’s edges gave rise to new concerns about environmental protection. Working-class struggles, often centered in the poorest communities, testified to the abysmal economic and housing conditions faced by many of the city’s residents. Many efforts to address these issues involved interventions in the city’s spaces, like housing codes, park plans, the development of public infrastructure, and land use controls. Attempts to harmonize the tensions between city and countryside took many forms, from exclusive early suburbs to idealistic visions of garden dwellings for laborers and immigrants.

Map of Boston: showing health districts and undrained and filled land

Heliotype Printing Co.
ca. 1870s
Leventhal Map & Education Center

In addition to the pale brown color showing filled land, this map depicts “low and swampy” land in green, and salt marshes in pale orange. Both of these environments were viewed with suspicion by many Bostonians of the eighteenth century, not only because they were unprofitable, but also because they were seen as the sources of noxious air and contagious diseases. While this “miasma theory” was soon to be discarded by doctors, many of Boston’s low areas were in fact sites of significantly polluted land and water. This map also shows health districts with blue outlines and numbers; these districts were created by the State Board of Health in 1874 in order to give doctors and health workers the power to measure and regulate disease.

Map showing Metropolitan Sewerage District: January 1, 1921

Metropolitan Water and Sewerage Board
Leventhal Map & Education Center

One of the most extensive and ambitious infrastructure projects that was carried out during the height of Boston’s industrial era was the construction of a vast network of sewer and pumping systems to handle the metropolitan area’s waste. As this 1921 map shows, the sewer system connected many cities and towns together, largely due to the fact that sewer lines needed to follow lines of topography, with waste flowing downhill towards the ocean. At this time, the city dumped sewage directly into Boston Harbor, with outlets labeled at Deer Island, Moon Island, and Nut Island. The city still uses key pieces of this system today, though sewage treatment was consolidated at a modern facility on Deer Island by the end of the twentieth century. Sewer and water systems were only two of the most visible efforts to bring the geography of a complicated modern city under control, and the institutional and technical systems that these projects established would also be used to intervene in areas like housing, transportation, and land use.