Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Cities: An Environmental History

Ian Douglas

I.B. Tauris, London



The environmental histories recounted in this book reveal stark contrasts between Western cities and urban settlements in the global South. With an impressive range of detailed examples within a wide historical and geographic spread, this book provides an account of how cities have co-evolved with their close and distant environments. It highlights the fact that despite the great cultural, social and economic achievements of urban agglomerations, multiple challenges remain and new ones are continuously being added to the ongoing processes of urbanization.

From a temporal perspective, the author gives account of the role of sudden and extreme events, such as man-made disasters or natural disasters, in shaping organizational developments, settlement structures and legal frameworks (Chapter 2). He also describes longitudinal patterns of slower changes, for example in the provision of water, changes to the land surface, or the quantity of urban metabolism (Chapters 3, 5 and 8).

Spatially, the book is guided by well-documented and often well-known examples of environmental challenges, such as disaster management of Hurricane Katrina, air quality in Beijing and desalinization in Western Australia. In the Introduction, the author points out that many of the successful and radical changes in environmental conditions of cities can be traced back to individuals or specific organizations being able to pursue innovative ideas. Thus, while the city scale is the clear spatial focus of the book, it is a description of the activities of different public and private agents that provides the reader with a deeper understanding of what a city actually entails. The chapters on urban metabolism and integrated water resource management, especially, make it clear that urban footprints extend well beyond city boundaries and that these spatial dependencies have created tensions and vulnerabilities throughout history, from Roman colonies to today’s global trade with e-waste.

The author further describes historical developments of strongly localized challenges, such as those related to health and sanitation, waste treatment and air pollution but also penetration by noise and odours. Interestingly, while showing clear differences between the rich and poor dwellers within cities in some regards (e.g. provision of services and infrastructure), developments in other realms (e.g. sewage treatment) seem to be more driven by technological and engineering skills.

In conclusion, this book points to the need for integrated thinking when addressing the sustainable development of emerging and mature cities. The cases described show that pathways in environmental history have been strongly driven by political will and government priorities, which reveal power relations and inequalities in hazardous environmental impacts.

Prepared by Julia Wesely.

For more information visit:


Search the Book notes database

Our Book notes database contains details and summaries of all the publications included in Book notes since 1993 - with details on how to obtain/download.

Use the search form above, or visit the Book notes landing page for more options and latest content.

For a searchable database for papers in Environment and Urbanization, go to http://eau.sagepub.com/