In order to understand the history of North American cities as ecological settings, it makes sense to begin with one of the oldest urban centres on the continent. First established as a colonial town in 1642, Montreal emerged as the commercial hub of the continental fur trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It later grew into an industrial city in the nineteenth century and stood as “the unchallenged metropolis of Canada” (4) for more than a hundred years. Montreal was one of the first North American cities to face the environmental challenges associated with rapid human population growth and industrial urbanization, including water delivery, sewage disposal, solid waste removal, air pollution, and overcrowding. Its history as an Aboriginal village, the former site of the Iroquois settlement of Hochelaga, dips even deeper into the past. It is surprising then that Metropolitan Natures is one of the first books to extensively examine the environmental history of Montreal.
North American urban environmental history, as a relatively new subfield, has devoted more attention to case studies of US cities, including Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago, Boston, Phoenix, Tuscon, Seattle, Houston, and Los Angeles, than it has to Canadian cities. Urban development in North America was a continental phenomenon with a historical narrative that extends beyond municipal (and national) boundaries. Given the extent to which urban development across the continent experienced common trends, policies, and practices, the absence of a detailed set of case studies of environmental histories of Montreal was a substantial omission. Castonguay and Dagenais (and the other authors in this collection) now offer a very important contribution to our understanding of the changing relationship between humans and the rest of nature in North American urban environments.
As a Canadian city and a bi-cultural city with both a French and English colonial past, Montreal has not been readily integrated into broader narratives of North American urban history. On the level of environmental analysis, however, this collection reveals the many ways in which Montreal has a shared history with other cities in Canada and the US. As Colin Coates points out in the first essay in this collection, “as for any North American urban center, the history of Montreal is, in part, the result of the attempt to distance the indigenous forests, plants, and wildlife from the town” (19). From waterworks and sewage systems development to the interconnections between city and countryside to the changing perceptions of public health, Metropolitan Natures takes readers through a survey of common themes in the environemntal history of cities. The editors thoughtfully organized this collection of well-researched and insightful essays into a set of three broad thematic categories that will be familiar to researchers in urban environmental history: representations, infrastructures, and hinterlands.
The essays in the first section on “representations” focus on the various ways in which people have imagined and portrayed the environment of the island of Montreal since Europeans first encountered this landscape in the 1530s. Almost all of the authors agree that the landscape of the city has long been dominated by its two most prominent features: the mountain and the river. Victoria Dickenson goes so far as to suggest that these landscape features are so enduring that one can still know the sensory experiences of centuries past from atop Mount Royal and from the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Perceptions of the urban environment were more than just fantasies of the mind and, in fact, they shaped material responses to urban development, especially in the area of public health. Whether it was the effects of urban pollution or the spread of Spanish influenza, as Nicolas Kenny argues, sensory experience informed policy and human agency as “the body played a fundamental role in mediating their relationship to this environment” (52).
The editors, however, are rightly cognizant that “the focus on the representations and meanings of urban experiences has sometimes been to the detriment of the study of the physical reality of the city” (8). As such, the second and most substantial section of the book looks at “infrastructures” or the material interactions between humans and nonhuman nature through various urban infrastructure projects, including surface water drainage, waterworks, reservoirs, flood control, streets, and highways. Not surprisingly, the environmental history of an island city situated at the confluence of two of the largest rivers in North America has been dominated by water. Dagenais’s own contribution to this collection offers one of the most interesting essays in this section, uncovering the interconnections between the development of the water networks and the social networks of power in nineteenth-century Montreal. The essay serves as a wonderful précis for her recently published monograph-length study of water in Montreal. Similarly, Dany Fougères’s fascinating history of surface water drainage in pre-industrial Montreal shows the physical challenges city-builders faced from the wet environment of the island. Readers will find the photographs of elevated snow-packed streets in the nineteenth century especially powerful symbols of the material limits that nonhuman nature placed on urbanization.
Finally, the concluding section of Metropolitan Natures picks up on the theme of metropolitanism or the relationship between city and countryside. Best articulated in Canadian historiography through the work of J.M.S. Careless and later developed in US environmental history by William Cronon, the metropolitan relationship between Montreal and its surrounding hinterland is examined in a series of case studies that focus on a diverse set of topics, including agricultural transformations, fox hunting, suburban Indian reserves, and hydro-electric development. Castonguay’s essay on the transformation of agriculture on the Montreal plain provides an excellent example of the linkages between urban and agricultural environments in what he refers to as “an autonomous agri-economic context” (187). Each essay reveals the interdependence between city and hinterland in the development of Canada’s leading metropolis in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The collection does not, however, offer any case studies of the waning influence of post-industrial Montreal in the later decades of the twentieth century and the effects of urban decentralization on surrounding suburban environments.
Metropolitan Natures offers researchers in urban and environmental history important new insights into the development of one of the most significant metropolises in North America. It provides fresh analyses of the relationship between nature and cities, demonstrating some of the vibrancy that environmental history brings to the well-established field of urban history.