Book ReviewsComptes rendus

Castonguay, Stéphane and Michèle Dagenais. Ed. Metropolitan Natures: Environmental Histories of Montreal. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011. Pp. 336. Illustrations, photographs, maps[Record]

  • Sean Kheraj

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  • Sean Kheraj
    Department of History, York University

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, …