Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s-1900s: Disorder, Inequality, and Social Change

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Press Release

Professor Taylor explores history of environmental justice in American cities in new book

ANN ARBOR, MI, November 6, 2009This book is published by Duke University Press

A new book from a University of Michigan professor explores how the centuries-old connections between racism and the environment in American cities.

"The Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s-1900s: Disorder, Inequality, and Social Change" was written by Dorceta Taylor, a professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment and director of an institute studying the issue of environmental justice its modern context. Duke University Press plans to release the book this month.

The first of two extensive books on conservation history and environmental justice, "The Environment and the People in American Cities" provides a sweeping and detailed examination of the evolution of American cities from Colonial New York and Boston to recent urban planning and labor reform efforts, outlining the rise of problems like overcrowding, pollution, poverty and epidemics and connecting them to systemic environmental racism and other forms of environmental inequities.

"The book takes on this very daunting and long timeline because it is important in getting readers to understand how the cities evolved and how the environmental needs of the cities changed over time," Professor Taylor said.

In its coverage of race, class and gender inequalities, the book includes a dimension missing from other academic books on environmental history. Professor Taylor adds to current research on the subject by exploring the emergence of elite reformers, the framing of environmental problems and the responses to perceived breakdowns in social order. By focusing specifically on cities, she offers important clues to understanding the evolution of American environmental activism.

"Cities pioneered early forms of environmental activism that set the stage for later activism around conservation issues related to wilderness, national parks, rural open spaces, wildlife and other work outside of urban areas," she said.

Beyond the contribution to historical literature on the subject, Professor Taylor connects her findings to current issues in environmental policy.

"A look at how cities and environmental reformers responded to such problems has important lessons that could prove valuable in dealing with contemporary problems," she said. "In particular, it shows how in the face of weak governance by city officials, activists stepped in to fill the void by spearheading initiatives and developing environmental policies that were eventually adopted."

The book grew out of an undergraduate class on environmental politics Professor Taylor taught more than a decade ago. "Minority and female students noted that one of the main textbooks - the best available at the time - focused heavily on the actions and accomplishments of middle - and upper-class white males while ignoring everyone else or portraying them in stereotypical terms," she explained.

After finding no books or articles examining race, class or gender and the environment in a historical context, she decided to write her own. The project eventually grew into two books.

"While all-male expeditions and solitary males who retreat to the woods for months or years at a time are idealized in many environmental history accounts, the urban activists receive no such acclaim or glory," she said, noting that female, working class and ethnic minorities were active in environmental activism and affairs. "In the city, the classes, races and genders interacted with each other to create a kind of environmentalism that was very fluid and dynamic." In the book, she traces the progression of several major thrusts in urban environmental activism, including the alleviation of poverty, public health, housing, parks, playgrounds, food safety and land use.

Throughout her analysis, she connects social and environmental conflicts of the past to those of the present. She describes the displacement of people of color for the production of natural open space for the white and wealthy; the close proximity between garbage and communities of color in early America; the "cozy" relationship between middle-class environmentalists and the business community; and resistance to environmental inequalities from residents of marginal communities.

Her current research includes an assessment of the green job sector; past research activities have included national studies of racial and gender diversity in the environmental field. She is program director for SNRE's Multicultural Environmental Leadership Development Initiative (MELDI), a source for career and funding information for students and environmental professionals.

The companion to "The Environment and the People in American Cities" is called "Outward Bound: Manliness, Wealth, Race and the Rise of the Environmental Movement, 1830s-1930s" and is in review.

To learn more visit Duke University Press

Multicultural Environmental Leadership Development Initiative
The Multicultural Environmental Leadership Development Initiative (MELDI) is a project housed at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment. MELDI aims to increase diversity in environmental organizations as well as the broader environmental movement. It also promotes greater diversity in leadership in the environmental field.
meldi.snre.umich.edu/

About the School of Natural Resources and Environment
The School of Natural Resources and Environment's overarching objective is to contribute to the protection of the Earth's resources and the achievement of a sustainable society. Through research, teaching and outreach, faculty, staff and students are devoted to generating knowledge and developing policies, techniques and skills to help practitioners manage and conserve natural and environmental resources to meet the full range of human needs on a sustainable basis.
www.snre.umich.edu


From Duke University Press

In The Environment and the People in American Cities, Dorceta E. Taylor provides an in-depth examination of the development of urban environments, and urban environmentalism, in the United States. Taylor focuses on the evolution of the city, the emergence of elite reformers, the framing of environmental problems, and the perceptions of and responses to breakdowns in social order, from the seventeenth century through the twentieth. She demonstrates how social inequalities repeatedly informed the adjudication of questions related to health, safety, and land access and use. While many accounts of environmental history begin and end with wildlife and wilderness, Taylor shows that the city offers important clues to understanding the evolution of American environmental activism.

Taylor traces the progression of several major thrusts in urban environmental activism, including the alleviation of poverty; sanitary reform and public health; safe, affordable, and adequate housing; parks, playgrounds, and open space; occupational health and safety; consumer protection (food and product safety); and land use and urban planning. At the same time, she provides a historical analysis of the ways race, class, and gender shaped experiences and perceptions of the environment as well as environmental activism and the construction of environmental discourses. Illuminating connections between the social and environmental conflicts of the past and those of the present, Taylor describes the displacement of people of color in early America, the cozy relationship between middle-class environmentalists and the business community, and the continuous resistance against environmental inequalities on the part of ordinary residents from marginal communities.

From the Reviewers

“Dorceta E. Taylor has set to write nothing short of a ‘People’s Environmental History of American Cities.’ At the core of her social history are inequalities based on race, gender, class, and ethnicity, as wealthy white elites shaped access to housing, workplaces, parks, and even cemeteries to their wishes, at the expense of everyone else. Taylor’s book is a call for broader perspectives on environmental issues, to include segregation, labor market and workplace dynamics, social movements, politics, and social control. A magnum opus chock full of fascinating details of an untold history of the environmental injustices at the root of our society.” –J. Timmons Roberts, Director of the Center for Environmental Studies, Brown University

“All future research on environmentalism and social change will reference The Environment and the People in American Cities. It is a pathbreaking, first-rate work of scholarship. As the first scholar to consider the relationship between social inequality and conservation issues within such an inclusive framework, Dorceta E. Taylor makes stunning links between the terrain of contemporary environmental and social justice conflicts and those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” –David Naguib Pellow, author of Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago

“The Environment and the People in American Cities is one of those great and versatile books that any environmental social scientist would want to have sitting on her shelf. I have read many books on related topics over the years, and I can’t recall any other that does anything like this one. By focusing on racial, ethnic, and class issues as they play out in the urban landscape, against such backdrops as public health concerns, parks, and industrial workplaces, Dorceta E. Taylor makes a major contribution. I’ll never view my urban surroundings in quite the same way again.” –Valerie Gunter, co-author of Volatile Places: A Sociology of Communities and Environmental Controversies  
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