Saturday, 2 January 2021

The Great Stink Redux

One of my civil engineering heroes is Sir Joseph Bazalgette, probably most famous for leading the construction of major sewers in Central London as a response to a spiraling public health crisis coming from cholera.

Back in the mid-1800s, the established medical thinking was that cholera was spread by a miasma (foul smell) from polluted water. The main problem London had at the time was raw sewage was being dumped in rivers and watercourses from which drinking water was taken (there was no treatment as such). It took people like epidemiologist, John Snow, to make the link between rotten water and infection, although it wasn't until later that century that germ theory was established and overturned miasma theory.

Bazalgette was only permitted to proceed with the plan to intercept the sewers of Central London before they discharged into the Thames when the Great Stink of 1858 made conditions from the Thames so bad that it affected the sitting of Parliament. It was all lots of things happening at once, but the dealing with the sewage in the Thames had the medical theories playing catch-up to some extent.

For a civil engineer who often finds politics frustrating, the Great Stink is a great example of having to deal with professional inertia and political will in order to deal with a public health issue through developing infrastructure. It can be rightly argued that Bazalgette's work saved many lives, despite medicine not catching up for a while after and it has me thinking about parallels today.

I guess that Covid-19 springs to mind, but that is coincidental. I'm thinking of the way we have allowed our streets to be dominated by motor traffic. That we need lots of it for cities to function or be prosperous is analogous to the miasma theory - it's a long held belief within much of the transport profession as well as the wider public and therefore politicians. Like cholera, it's impacts can affect anyone, but more likely those living in poorer neighbourhoods. There is political resistance to change the infrastructure because of concerns that it won't work or that it challenges the status quo.

Of course, many have embraced the new germ theory that in fact we have to change how things operate, that it does work and that we can't afford not to do it. Are Low Traffic Neighbourhoods the modern equivalent of John Snow removing the handle from the Broad Street water pump - something we have found to be successful through experimentation (and epidemiology comes into it) before the accepted theories have changed?

Let's make no mistake. Streets are part of our living space and although Covid-19 has thrown that into stark relief, the Great Stink has been with us for well over 60 or 70 years. Rather than clean up our act, we have defecated into our drinking water and then wondered why we have road danger, sprawl and air pollution. We need to treat our streets as a public health emergency which requires both radical adjustments to how they operate along with structural change to how we design and manage them. Maybe we also need to make it personal with politicians - let them breathe the Great Stink of the 21st Century.

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