An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature

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As these issues were mitigated to some degree and the city's population increased in the subsequent years following a shift from European administration to that of the United States, other issues rose to the forefront. Sewage, refuse clogging open gutters, acquisition of potable drinking water, and backflow from Lake Pontchartrain through the Carondelet and New canals were some of the other problems to tackle in the 19th century.

Eventually, wider ranging problems of expanding levees away from the river to protect new housing that sprung up on tenuously reclaimed land, industrial pollution in the Mississippi River, limited space for garbage disposal, and destruction of the surrounding wetlands would come to bear. It was elucidating to learn how protection of the city evolved from private citizens, to the city government, and eventually the Federal government, with its matching increase of effectiveness and rising expectations.

Also the sheer magnitude of waste dumped directly into the river, both by New Orleans itself and then by manufacturing firms upriver in the 20th century is astounding.

An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature - Craig E. Colten - Google книги

The section on the clash between Progressive Era and Jim Crow values and how ultimately environmental inequities and social inequities were entwined was insightful. The work itself was rather dry at times. It did not address the sizable effect of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet on the surrounding wetlands. And while Colten clearly stated he would not delve deeply into related political and economic issues, the work itself could have been more readable and comprehensive by talking about such local topics as steamboats, the bulk shipping industry, the shrimping industry, or the oil industry.

Where "An Unnatural Metropolis" clearly exceeds another scholarly work on a similar subject, "Catastrophe in the Making", is in its integration of multiple environmental factors to provide a broad understanding of the issues arrayed against the Crescent City. Limited solutions are offered and are not centered on combating a single source, whereas "Catastrophe in the Making" implies that by simply curbing the power of a cabalistic "Growth Machine" and filling in the MRGO, the city will avoid future disasters.


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Admittedly Colten's book did not have the advantage of hindsight to analyze the Katrina catastrophe, but it also did not have to contend with the distorting, emotionally charged aftermath of Katrina either. Which is likely why his work helps provide a clear understanding of that tragic event. The book is really three and a half stars for the high quality content, the craftsmanship ultimately dragging this one down. Jan 10, Adam rated it it was ok Shelves: environmental-history , uiuc-library , history , non-fiction. Unnatural Metropolis is maybe the least inspired history I've ever read.

It's plenty factual and informative about a broad set of New Orleans' environmental travails clean water, sewage, marsh drainage and subsidence, flooding, levees, yellow fever, etc but it's more like an extended wikipedia article than what I'd normally think of as a history per se. That's fine, and I found it pretty helpful as a guide moving into my touristic activities, verifying and contextualizing some of the claims ma Unnatural Metropolis is maybe the least inspired history I've ever read. That's fine, and I found it pretty helpful as a guide moving into my touristic activities, verifying and contextualizing some of the claims made by tour guides and such.

It just feels as bland and generic as New Orleans is vibrant and layered, which is a shame. Like, there's nothing the least bit poetic or evocative about how it portrays the eons long process of sediments piling up and breaking down that New Orleans sits on top of. And it's not just that Colten isn't an expressive writer; it just isn't there. This is particularly clear in the ecology of yellow fever, for instance, where it's never really made clear how exactly the mosquito ecology really was before the swamps were drained, and how the city changed it; whether the disease emerged periodically from reservoirs in the city or from new strains introduced by migration.

It's just one example, but the book feels systematically disinterested in environments for their own sake, as compelling as the NOLA area bioregion is. In the intro and conclusion, Colten sets his book up as an entry into a larger conversation about NOLA as an urban entity, a development pattern.

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He disparages previous attempts to explain this pattern as a purely economic question, whereas ecology seems clearly relevant. That's an easy point to make, and one with a clear ideological valence. But the rest of the book doesn't seem aware that it's part of this discussion at all. The nature of this "purely economic" explanation is never expounded, much less the pattern it's trying to explain.

It really just feels like Colten is starting from scratch. Many times he mentions economic limitations as to why the city government did or didn't solve an environmental problem, but they're presented as detached conditions independent of the environment even as they dictate its fate. I would have appreciated a presentation that made policy feel like the product of political economy that included the city's economic life as a dynamic partner. Fixing all those omissions would have made this a much longer book not that it's terribly long already , though that would be a less tiresome prospect if there were some flavor to it there are no named people in any of these arcs, which is a choice I like in theory except that the systems don't really rise up as characters in their place either.

Either way, it's useful and good enough for some purposes, but it's not really worth reading for its own sake. Aug 19, Mark rated it really liked it. The one thing most people know about Louisiana is that there is a city - one city - in it. Other than New Orleans, what is there?

And, other than the four things listed above, what else is there about New Orleans that's worth knowing? The first question will have to wait for another review. The second question may be answered, in part, by this work of Craig Colten. Half way through the first chapter I found myself asking, "Why the hell did anyone try to set up and maintain a city under such crappy literally conditions?

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Living in Louisiana I've heard bits and pieces of the geographic story of the city. I knew there were natural ridges cast up by the river itself when, millennia ago, its course differed from today. Mind you, "ridges" should NOT bring to mind towering escapements or some other mountain-related mental image. These ridges are mere feet above the surrounding swamp which is itself barely above sea level. What happens when humans attempt to overcome nature in a situation like this?

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I'll let you read for yourself but I will provide a hint - it's expensive and it doesn't always work. Other chapters treat: how the city has dealt with "nature" within is boundaries and without those boundaries are themselves nature defined and very well drawn ; how a growing appreciation for and changing definition of "the environment" affected the city, and; how the city has dealt with the usual host of problems created by a mass of humans living together in a fairly tight space. I can't say this was a scintillating read but it did capture my attention and hold it throughout.

Trust me, other works along these same lines are dry as dust. Colten manages to bring what could be very specialized, and therefore deadly dull, material to life without pandering or playing tricks.


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I don't know if there is a genre for "urban biography" but "An Unnatural Metropolis" would definitely fit. Of course, there are other tales of New Orleans, real and fictional, that will provide other aspects of the city and its history, its personality, its triumphs and its tragedies. I suspect we'll be seeing more tragedy as time passes but for now let's go with triumph. This is one of those books that someone lent me and I felt the need to put it at the top of my list so I could give it back as soon as possible, as I'm always worried that I will lose or damage other people's stuff if it stays in my room for more than a fortnight.

While well researched and interesting in a general sense, Colten's writing is extremely dry and it took me a while to slog through a lot of it. If you have an active interest in the impact of the natural environment on urban developmen This is one of those books that someone lent me and I felt the need to put it at the top of my list so I could give it back as soon as possible, as I'm always worried that I will lose or damage other people's stuff if it stays in my room for more than a fortnight.

If you have an active interest in the impact of the natural environment on urban development in general or the developmental history of New Orleans in particular, than pick this one up; if not, don't bother. Dec 06, Robin B rated it liked it Shelves: new-orleans-books. A bit dry, and in some parts more technical than I would have liked, but a very informative book on how New Orleans was shaped and how previous environmental problems influenced the city's history and, in a way, the citizens' current attitudes toward government and officials.

I have a cousin who works for the EPA who would probably really dig this book. Jan 29, Jonathan rated it liked it. Though a very dry read, this is a well researched book and covers some important topics including environmental justice as it pertains to New Orleans.


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Madeline rated it really liked it Nov 19, Chris rated it it was amazing Feb 25, Melissa rated it really liked it Aug 28, Erin rated it it was amazing Nov 25, Jody rated it really liked it Feb 07, Ellen rated it really liked it Aug 06, Lauren rated it liked it Sep 08, Morgan Crutcher rated it liked it Apr 30, Shop Books.

Read an excerpt of this book! Add to Wishlist. USD Sign in to Purchase Instantly. Explore Now. Buy As Gift. Overview Strategically situated at the gateway to the Mississippi River yet standing atop a former swamp, New Orleans was from the first what geographer Peirce Lewis called an "impossible but inevitable city. Product Details About the Author. About the Author Craig E. Average Review.

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An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature by Craig E. Colten

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