Book ReviewsComptes rendus

Michèle Dagenais, Montreal, City of Water: An Environmental History (translated by Peter Feldstein), (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017)Harold Platt, Sinking Chicago: Climate Change and the Remaking of a Flood-Prone Environment (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2018)[Notice]

  • Daniel Macfarlane

…plus d’informations

  • Daniel Macfarlane
    Western Michigan University

Michèle Dagenais’s Montreal, City of Water and Harold Platt’s Sinking Chicago are about big North American cities in the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence basin and their historical relationships to water. One is an American case study, the other is Canadian, making for a fascinating juxtaposition. Both are written by respected scholars who have been researching and writing about their respective urban areas for years. Both look at the co-construction and hybridization of the cities through an aquatic lens. Both posit water as a powerful historical actor while pointing to the importance of changing conceptions of water over time, but neither goes too far into a material determinist perspective or an extreme postmodernist approach where water is nothing but a social construct. The Sanitary District of Chicago’s (SDC) late nineteenth-century reversal of the Chicago River and construction of a network of combined interceptor sewer lines to handle both wastewater and flooding, rather than the more expensive treatment options, “became the single-most-important decision in the city’s history of its relationship with water and land” (17). This created important path dependencies, asserted a pattern of political expediency over technical expertise as well as incrementalism over coordinated planning, cemented the city’s proclivity towards large-scale enviro-technical solutions, and ensconced the Chicago River as an open sewer and industrial conduit—a sacrifice zone—with Lake Michigan as the “ultimate sink.” The Windy City was all the while in the midst of rapid expansion. Chicago came to encompass what had been independent communities on the city’s margins, turning them into suburbs and exurbs. The urban conglomeration’s waterways expanded in a sense, too, as the Calumet region became the main harbour, since dreams of the Chicago River as a major water highway never materialized. Still, the tension remained as to whether the water bodies in central Chicago were best used for navigation and commerce, or sanitation and health. During the 1930s Chicago was forced to reduce the volume of the Chicago Diversion and start using water treatment technologies, and the Skokie Lagoons were developed as part of the New Deal. As the author puts it, “The political legacy of conservationism on Chicago’s flood-prone environment during the interwar years was a mixture of significant gains and lost opportunities” (116). Changing climate meant that the rain returned in the second half of the twentieth century, as did corruption scandals. In a case of shifting baseline syndrome, Chicagoans had forgotten how flood-prone their city was and made things worse by paving over and building on much of Chicagoland. Raw sewage continued to frequently overflow into the water bodies providing the public water supply. Between 1975 and 1985 the TARP, or Deep Tunnel, was built as a sort of massive holding tank for the extreme, yet common, rainfalls. The completion of this deep tunnel allowed the city to stop using chemical disinfectants for public water; but that approach quickly proved inadequate, and another expansion phase was embarked upon. Improving water quality was a double-edged sword, however. As Platt explains in his penultimate chapter, cleaner water allowed invasive species to thrive, for example, but was part of a public movement to reclaim the river as a recreational pathway rather than an industrial corridor. In the conclusion the author covers more recent developments and isn’t shy about applying historical lessons to current and future debates about the city’s liquid trajectory. Over time, Montreal’s waterfront was transformed into a harbour and industrial zone. While many might think first of the St. Lawrence River and Mont Royal reservoirs when it comes to Montreal and water, Dagenais turns the reader’s attention to other water bodies, such as the Rivière des …