Health and the Urban Environment

Health & the Urban Environment brings together scholars from the subfields of urban history, environmental history, and history of medicine/public health to consider the deep interconnections between health and urban environments. Our goal is to create conversations in a space dedicated to sharing methodologies and works-in-progress. We welcome scholars working on any geography or time period with a commitment to engaging with new ideas and questions that will advance our understanding about how the health of populations, and the urban environments in which they live, have been historically co-produced.

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Consortium Respectful Behavior Policy

Participants at Consortium activities will treat each other with respect and consideration to create a collegial, inclusive, and professional environment that is free from any form of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.

Participants will avoid any inappropriate actions or statements based on individual characteristics such as age, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, nationality, political affiliation, ability status, educational background, or any other characteristic protected by law. Disruptive or harassing behavior of any kind will not be tolerated. Harassment includes but is not limited to inappropriate or intimidating behavior and language, unwelcome jokes or comments, unwanted touching or attention, offensive images, photography without permission, and stalking.

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Upcoming Meetings

There are no currently scheduled upcoming events.

Past Meetings

  • May 2, 2024

    Slava Savova, "Re-Ottomanizing modernity: domesticating balneology in early to mid-20th century Bulgaria"

    This dissertation chapter examines the local intermingling of a specific type of sociomedical architectures – Ottoman and European thermal baths - and the persistent vernacular uses that bind them together.

    Public baths, one of the most prominent typologies within the Ottoman architectural nomenclature, were erected in the vicinity of dozens of thermal springs across the territory of
    present-day Bulgaria, simultaneously facilitating the access to the natural resource and establishing the boundaries of its uses. After Bulgaria’s liberation from Ottoman rule in 1878,
    the country embarked on a course of modernization that saw the rapid elimination of the Ottoman era infrastructures. I argue that the eclectic shells of their “modern” replacements
    enclosed pre-existing healing and bathing practices and the process of their building became the contested territory of political, cultural, and social conflicts. Furthermore, I will question the modern/archaic, hygienic/unclean, Western/Ottoman binaries deployed in the remaking of the civic environment and will demonstrate that the modernization of early to mid-20th century Bulgaria was a non-linear process of adaptation and absorption of preceding cultural practices, that aligned modern technology along the contours of pre-existing ecologies of care and healing.

  • April 4, 2024

    Kara Murphy Schlichting, "Summer Complaint: Heat as a Public Health Crisis in 19th-Century New York City"
    Abstract: When it came to public health, seasons mattered in nineteenth-century New York City. Extreme heat endangered human health, sickening people with heat stroke and dehydration and spiking the fatality rates of infectious diseases. This paper opens in the 1860s as physicians and sanitarians established a Board of Health, the nation's first, to address urbanites' ill-health, including summertime mortality rates. Miasmic theory's focus on the role of environmental factors led public health offiicials to see summertime through an explanatory frame that focused on environmental conditions of city streets and atmosphere. In studying the city environs, enumerating and charting temperature, humidity, and wind alongside vital statistics, public health officials built an etiology of seasonal ill-health that linked urban form and weather phenomena. I argue taht climatological understanding of healthfulness and disease led health officials to study the city's atmosphere and attempt to improve the housing conditions of airless tenements and the sanitation issues of filthy streets. Public health struggled to understand and mitigate summertime deaths through successive reforms concerning street cleaning, housing improvements, and the slow shift from miasma to germ theory.
    Comment: Richard C. Keller, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

  • March 7, 2024

    Evan Roberts, "Young but daily growing? The decline of stunting and growth faltering in the United States, 1857-2014" 
    Abstract: Growth faltering—where children's stature falls below reference standards in infancy and through age 3-—is common in developing countries today. It is less clear how growth faltering has changed over long periods of time. However, historical data on growth patterns is abundant, because of sustained interest in the health of urban children that developed in the late nineteenth century United States. Using unique individual-level data from a 1918 childhood health survey I benchmark growth faltering in the early twentieth century, with the sample matching national growth patterns. 
    Using published data on children's stature, I then examine how growth patterns changed over time. Although American preschool children around 1920 were taller than populations in developing countries today, a clear pattern of growth faltering through the toddler years is observed. Published growth data on US children from 1900 through World War II suggest growth faltering was common in the United States, and that rural children were slightly taller. Rural and urban differences declined by the beginning of World War II. 
    Comment: Andrew Ruis, University of Wisconsin

  • February 1, 2024

    Short Writings Roundtable
    If you have a shorter piece--an abstract, a research description, an op-ed, etc.--that you would like feedback on, this session is for you! Please submit you short piece via this Google form by January 26 for posting.

  • December 7, 2023

    Sam Hege, “When Noxious Odors Prevail”: Dust, Race, and the Creation of an Agro-Industrial Complex in the Texas Panhandle
    Abstract: In the mid-20th century, intensive efforts to suppress dust throughout the Southern Plains of the United States sparked a region wide surge in agricultural production. Following the 1930’s dust storms, which earned the region the enduring moniker, the Dust Bowl, many outside observers deemed this part of the country unsuitable to farming and permanent human settlement. To counter this malignant perception of the Dust Bowl, local boosters, farmers, and politicians adopted new and extractive approaches to farming that could persist amidst severe periods of drought. Although much has been written about the history of industrial farming in the Southern Plains, scholars have paid little attention to the impact of this transformation on working-class Black and Latinx communities. As activists in Lubbock, TX, a primary urban hub of the Southern Plains, have argued, ag-related dusts were not so much suppressed as they were disproportionately respatialized. Concentrating dust within racialized urban spaces allowed local boosters to turn the region’s dust particles from a national spectacle into a localized and tolerable nuisance. This article argues that racial conceptions of health, space, and atmosphere ultimately sustained the region’s transformation into an agro-industrial complex.
    In tracing how West Texas dust transformed from a rural disaster into an urban nuisance, this article identifies key, yet unrecognized, mechanisms underlying the formation of postwar agro-industrial complexes throughout the U.S. Southwest. To develop this argument, I draw out the “creative” forms of extraction that boosters and developers employed to enable this transition. As Louise Seamster and Danielle Purifoy have argued, the extraction of value from Black and Latinx spaces, via “displacing environmental harms” through innovations “in laws, policies, and implementation to reproduce racialized uneven development,” makes possible the creation of white land values. While Purifoy and Seamster focus on the ways that “creative extraction” has constricted the possibilities of Black towns in support of the expansion of metropolitan white suburbs, a similar model applies to the dynamic urban-rural settings that comprise the Southern Plains agricultural landscape. In West Texas, this included the development of racialized systems of labor appropriation as well as the use of development tools such as urban renewal to expand industrial operations and concentrate dust within particular communities. Building Jennifer Gabrys’ practice of “tuning in... to the demands for justice that particulate pollution instigate,” this article argues that discussions of the future of industrial farming must address the disproportionate distribution of dust that continues to infect Black and Latinx resident’s lungs, breakdown their a/c units, and pollute their greenspace. This history illustrates how the relational mechanisms of racism and pollutive sitings are not “externalities” but rather fundamental to the formation of modern industrial agriculture.
    Opening comment by Josiah Rector, University of Houston

  • November 2, 2023

    Taylor Desloge, "Sanitized Violence: The Strange Liberal Rebirth of Jim Crow and the Origins of an Urban Renewal Coalition, 1917-1929" 
    Abstract: In the fall of 1923, in response to an outbreak of smallpox and a larger panic over public health spurred by the Great Migration, the St. Louis city health department instituted a mandatory vaccination program for Black Migrants at St. Louis’ Union Station. As city health commissioner Max C. Starkloff fought to implement the program, he faced a widespread protest movement from Black St. Louisans, who gathered daily at Union Station to jeer and taunt at the police officers enforcing the quarantine. In time, Starkloff would be forced to the bargaining table—and to eventually abandon his scheme altogether—by a new coalition of interracial reformers. This chapter argues that moments like the 1923 Quarantine, when both disease and Black political dissent threatened the day-to-day operation of the Jim Crow city, were the building blocks of a reconstructed Jim Crow in the interwar era, with profound consequences for 20th century urban policy. As men like Starkloff, and later, city planner Harland Bartholomew sought to implement an aggressive modernization campaign in the name of the public welfare, they quickly discovered that meeting the demands of a growing and increasingly influential bloc of Black St. Louisans was essential to the legitimation of their schemes. In place of a color line that had emerged through decades of violence and dispossession perpetrated against African American St. Louisans, technocrats like Starkloff offered a new, modern Jim Crow that sanitized the violence and neglect of segregation beneath a promise of universal welfare, racial reconciliation and most importantly of all, the democratic consent—real, imagined and sometimes wholly fabricated—of Black St. Louisans themselves. I argue that the interwar reconstruction of Jim Crow in places like St. Louis played a foundational role in the dispossession of Black communities later in the century. As interracial reformers worked out a new vision for 20th century St. Louis,  they tied the long post-emancipation fight for Black health and environmental equity with a newer vision of urban reconstruction that valued the needs of a deeply racialized urban land market over those of residents themselves.
    Opening comment by Michele Mitchell, NYU

  • October 5, 2023

    Kristin Brig-Ortiz, "Hydrological Dissonances: Climate, Geography, and Port City Waters"
    Abstract: Southern African port municipalities designed their various water infrastructures as part of the non-living environments around them. Environmental history and histories of technology have together argued that we cannot separate infrastructure from its climatic, topographic, and “natural” surrounding. Building on literature in environmental histories of imperial technologies and control over nature, this chapter shows the close attention colonial municipalities paid to the non-living environmental landscapes around and within their cities in order to construct durable water infrastructure. Through this analysis, I argue that the non-living natural environment created a continual challenge to British hydrological authority and management along the urban Cape and Natal coastline. While scholars have long examined this struggle in different contexts, they often examine major infrastructural pieces such as dams, irrigation technology, and railroads instead of the daily nature-human struggles inherent in the built colonial environment. As they tried to construct western infrastructure in these areas, British colonizers framed the coastal southern African environment as a “deviant” being that resisted and often impaired colonial actions and technologies. Southern African non-human nature may have been beautiful, but it was also destructive and subversive, radiating the tumor of urban colonialism as the latter sought to expand into and manipulate the landscape around it.

  • September 7, 2023

    Introductions and Inspirations
    For our first meeting, we will not be discussing a common text. Instead, this session will allow us to meet one another, establish goals for our working group, and share our favorite titles on health and the urban environment. 

Group Conveners

  • jason.chernesky's picture

    Jason Chernesky

    Jason M. Chernesky is the CLIR Opioid Industry Research Postdoctoral Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University’s Institute of the History of Medicine. His current and first book project is titled “The Littlest Victims”: Pediatric AIDS and the Urban Ecology of Children’s Health, 1950 – 2015. His research works at the intersections of science, technology, medicine, public health, and urban environments in the U.S. during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


  • mkiechle's picture

    Melanie Kiechle

    Melanie A. Kiechle is an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech and the author of Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America (University of Washington, 2017). She researches and teaches at the intersections of science, medicine, lay experience, and the environment in the nineteenth century.


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