Water technology and the urban environment: water, sewerage, and disease in San Francisco and Melbourne before 1920

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The challenges cities face in supplying safe water and disposing effectively of sewage and wastewater are affected by historical and environmental conditions and the long-lasting effects of choices of infrastructure. This article provides case studies of two similar cities, San Francisco and Melbourne, from the mid-nineteenth-century gold rushes to 1920, to show how differences in geography and governance structure can shape water technologies in a path-dependent way. While the two cities developed safe water supplies early in their histories, these were not well integrated with sewerage systems. The use of typhoid death rates, which provide a proxy for water quality and urban pollution, reveals the impact of defective water technology on the urban environment in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-32
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Urban History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020


  • water supply
  • sewerage
  • pollution
  • typhoid
  • government
  • San Francisco
  • Melbourne

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