What was lost along with the disappearance of animal life in urban centers? Clearly there were problems with the 18th and 19th century modes of urban animal life but surely there were benefits. How can we learn from past periods of beastly cohabitation? I think it would makes us all the more human.

Feature image:  A Fifth Avenue stage, New York, ca. 1900, 8 x 10 in.; source: Library of Congress

Several months ago I participated on a panel discussion in Sarasota, Florida for the annual SECAC (Southeastern College Art Conference) event. I presented a general introduction to The Expanded Environment and spoke about the relegated position that has been assigned non-human life in the development of our homes and cities. During the question and answer session i was posed an question/comment from a young woman  in the audience. She raised her hand to ask about the history of animal life in cities. Haven’t we lived in close proximity to animals in the past? And what would you say about the period of urban history that is filled with horses and horse manure?  It’s a great question and one that I hadn’t directly tackled before. She’s totally right I should say, that it’s only very recently – barely one hundred years – that animals have been notably absent from urban life. While she was asking in that instance to the presence of horses in city life but, if we turn the clock back a little further, we quickly start to include not just horses, but cattle, pigs, goats, feral dogs, cats, and several other animal species that for many decades had a significant impact on urban planning, design, and very notably – public health.

This history of urban animal life has not been particularly well chronicled in the past (though it does appear in notable literature, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for example and throughout literature in the 18th and 19th centuries) and much of the physical presence of animal life in cities has been erased (stables, pens and towers). But certainly the presence of non-human life in cities was a significant part of urban life all the way up to the early parts of the 20th century.

A recent collection of scholarly papers Edited by Peter Atkins and published by Ashgate Press gives a very thorough view of the significant role of animals in European and American cities during the 17th 18th and 19th centuries. The collection is packed with not only historical accounts of animal life in the cities of the past but numerous statistics, charts and historical analysis that contribute to a well-rounded and exhaustive study of the subject.

There are a few key anecdotes that stand out: In an early chapter in the work titled Animal Wastes and Nuisances in Nineteenth-Century London Atkins reprints figures of the population of cows in London from 1718-1914. Between those two dates the number of London cows grew from 6,000 to over 20,000 at its peak in 1852, and then dropping slightly to 18,000 [Atkins, 39]. Similarly impressive figures can be found for other animals – 200,000 horses in London at the end of the 19th century, and a great many other hundreds of thousands of pigs, sheep, fowl and others.

The image of the Georgian and Victorian city painted by Atkins and his co-authors is one of constant animal presence in almost every aspect of city life with all of the accompanying sounds, smells, blood, guts, and frankly disease-inducing conditions. As he states in the open paragraph to chapter three “all of the evidence indicates that Georgian and Victorian cities in Britain were filthy and represented one of the all-time peaks of sanitary transgression by any standard that one might wish to apply [Atkins 53].”

By the 19th century things began to change. City planners had taken a proactive attitude towards reducing animal waste in the urban centers and the famous Smithfield Market was moved by a special committee from Parliament outside of the city to Islington in 1855 [Ito, 193].  Popular attitudes towards cleanliness, ‘maisma’ and disease were also changing and the presence and popularity of the newly built London Zoo was further emphasizing a growing trend of reconsidering animal life and value in the European city [Ito, 192].

By the start of the second world war most animal life had been dramatically reduced in European cities. In Paris for example, the horse population plummeted from 110,000 in 1902 to 22,000 in 1933 [Barles 186]. And as we all know current cities around the world, not only Western but cities in general have almost no animal life in their cores, and if they do, it is strongly curtailed.

What was lost along with the disappearance of animal life in urban centers? Clearly there were problems with the 18th and 19th century modes of urban animal life but surely there were benefits. Firstly there’s the obvious lack of reliance on petrochemically derived energy. Horses were the dominant form of transportation in past urbanites, and one would surmise that less fuel would be spent delivering produce and meat into the city if it already supported a viable agricultural market.  More than that however Atkins and co. portray a vibrant and vital system of consumption, use and reuse within Victorian cities. Though the animal industry may have been messy and prone to disease there was – for a brief time – an intricate and one might say “sustainable” system of consumption, waste, reuse and repetition. Materials were used in the city and what couldn’t be immediately used was composed, buried or rendered into other products. How can we learn from past periods of beastly cohabitation? What changes to urban policy and planning would need to be made to allow for the reintroduction of some animals into our daily lives? I think it would makes us all the more human.

Sources for this posting came from: “Animal Cities; Beastly Urban Histories” edited by Peter Atkins, Ashgate Publishing Limited, Surrey England, 2012.


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