Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, “The Miasmist: George E. Waring, Jr. and Landscapes of Public Health”
The GSD’s Spring 2021 Public Programs are all virtual and require registration.
In 1867, nineteenth-century sanitary engineer George E. Waring, Jr. (1833–1898) published an influential manual entitled “Draining for Profit, Draining for Health,” reflecting the obsessions of his gilded age—wealth, health, and miasma. Even as the germ theory emerged, Waring supported the anti-contagionist miasma theory, positing that disease spread through the air as a poisonous vapor, emerging from damp soil. He applied his knowledge of farm drainage to an urban theory of public health, with a drainage plan for Central Park; a sewerage system for Memphis; a transformation of New York City’s Department of Street Cleaning; and a sanitation plan for Havana, Cuba. Waring’s battle against miasma was an endeavor to transform both the physical landscape and its inhabitants’ morality; his brilliant failure (in scientific terms) is worth reassessing in light of the public health and equity issues arising from today’s pandemic and climate crises.
Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, AIA ASLA, is a professor and director of the graduate landscape architecture program at the Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York. A registered architect and landscape architect, she is a graduate of the Cooper Union and Princeton University, a fellow of the American Academy in Rome, and a recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship for research in Brazil. Her work explores adaptation to climate change in urban environments and the novel transformation of landscape restoration practices. She also examines the intersection of political power, environmental activism, and public health, particularly as seen through the design of equitable public space and policy. Her books include Depositions: Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes under Dictatorship (University of Texas Press, 2018); Structures of Coastal Resilience (Island Press, 2018); Waterproofing New York (Urban Research Press, 2016); and On the Water: Palisade Bay (Hatje Cantz, 2010). Her essays have been published widely, including the journals Architectural Review, Artforum, Avery Review, Harvard Design Magazine, JoLA, LA+, Landscape Architecture Magazine, and Topos.
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