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Historical geography of urban pollution in Canada

Researcher: Dr. Arn Keeling

Technological networks of sewers and waste-treatment plants provide crucial insights into the urban transformation of space and nature despite—or perhaps because of—their subterranean, hidden locations and somewhat unsavoury nature. Sanitation was probably the most pressing environmental question facing North American cities in the century between 1850 and 1950, as urbanization and industrialization brought millions of people into novel and crowded living circumstances. The resulting problems of disease, dirt and disorder spawned a series of scientific, technical and social initiatives designed to mitigate the impacts of urban population concentration. Among the most important of these developments was the planning and construction of wastewater-disposal systems, beginning in the late-19th century.

This multi-city research project examines the environmental history and geography of urban wastewater systems during this crucial century of development. Such historical research is critical to understanding contemporary problems facing Canadian urban environments. Today, several major Canadian cities continue to discharge raw sewage to adjacent waterways, while others struggle with overloaded treatment and disposal systems. Urban centres face millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements and investment to protect against the declining quality of surrounding waters and, in some cases, the threat of contaminated drinking water supplies. Using a comparative approach and combining perspectives from historical geography, environmental history and the history of science and technology, this research will illuminate the complex social, environmental and technological factors shaping this important element of the “urban metabolism.”

Lea, R.S. Report by R.S. Lea to the Burrard Peninsula Joint Sewerage Committee, Vancouver, Vancouver and Districts Joint Sewerage and Drainage Board. 1917 [1913].

Saskatoon City Archives, D-500-XV-OS-1930-10, “Official Plan, City of Saskatoon, Map 1, Sewer & Water Mains with Year of Construction, 1930 [detail].” Scan courtesy Jeff O’Brien, City of Saskatoon Archives.

Student research:

  • Kyle Smith, BA (Hons.), 2010: "Bursting 'the Bubble': A Historical-geographical Account of Sewerage and Sewage Treatment in St. John's, Newfoundland, 1888-2009.


  • The Effluent Society: Water Pollution and Environmental Politics in British Columbia (book manuscript in progress)
  • “Urban Waste Sinks as a Natural Resource: The Case of the Fraser River,” Urban History Review/Revue d’Histoire Urbaine 34:1 (Fall 2005), 58-70.
  • “Sink or Swim: Water Pollution and Environmental Politics in Vancouver, 1889%1975,” BC Studies 142/43 (Summer/Autumn 2004), 69-101.
  • “Saskatoon’s Sewer: Pollution and the South Saskatchewan River,” Saskatoon History Review 19 (2005).