P is for Public Health & Safety

July 14th, 2007

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The belief that health and quality of life are shaped by the physical environment brought together public sanitation advocates, settlement house workers, architects, and landscape architects at the first American national conferences on city planning in 1909 and 1910. Public health advocates focused on improving waste disposal, assuring light and air to homes, providing clean food and water, and making available safe play areas. Supporters of the “City Beautiful” idea promoted construction of wide tree-lined boulevards and urban parks and plazas.

Common ground was found on key issues such as limiting building height. Public health advocates saw this as a way of assuring light and air to buildings and to the streets below, while City Beautiful proponents viewed height limits as a way of lending visual unity and human scale to the city.

Public health was at the heart of efforts by reformers in the mid-to-late 19th century to improve conditions in tenement housing. As a result of their advocacy, New York State and City passed a series of increasingly strict tenement house laws. The first of these, enacted in 1867, required that at least one toilet or privy be provided for every 20 people, to be connected to sewers where available. Subsequent laws set minimum standards for lot width, room size, and amount of light and ventilation.

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