By Owen Temby and Jessica van Horssen
The latest issue of Urban History Review/Revue histoire urbaine is a special themed issue we guest edited on the topic of environmental nuisances and political contestation in Canadian cities. Nuisances are interesting challenges due to their paradoxicality, since they are both an outcome of, and hindrance to, urban economic growth. Smoke, for example, may be the “smell of money,” but it also exacts an economic toll in lost tourism, damaged buildings, and harm to the city’s reputation. Moreover, problems that are described as nuisances by some political actors are public health threats to others. The latter understanding is more politically potent, but it’s also harder to prove and thus riskier for activists seeking to use it to bring about policy changes. Examining how governments, businesses, and citizens have managed the seemingly conflicting imperatives of urban growth and nuisance abatement reveals much about the economic and political development of our cities.
The topic of the special issue was suggested to one of us a couple of years ago by UHR/RUH’s former co-editor, Claire Poitras, who expressed that this timely issue merited more attention in the Canadian context. UHR/RUH is the only journal dedicated specifically to the topic of Canada’s urban history. It’s also the oldest active journal of its kind, with 44 years of continuous publication. As explained in our introduction essay for the special issue, although the study of urban nuisances in North America has expanded substantially in recent years, there is more important work to be done. Both of us have separately researched the history of urban pollution issues and maintain active agendas in this area. Our recent work includes studies of Asbestos, Quebec and air pollution in Ontario. The time seemed right to give the broader topic of nuisances another look and to bring it to the pages of UHR/RUH.
The special issue consists of three research articles, plus introduction and conclusion essays framing the nuisance issue in a Canadian context and summarizing the findings. The articles run in reverse chronological order, beginning with Stéphane Castonguay and Vincent Bernard’s contribution, “National and Local Definitions of an Environmental Nuisance.” Using case studies organized around three river basins in Quebec, and covering a 35-year period, they illustrate how different political actors sought to define water pollution in different ways, with implications for the resulting policy response. In “Smelter Fumes, Local Interests, and Political Contestation in Sudbury, Ontario during the 1910s,” Don Munton and Owen Temby offer an account of protests over the urban smoke issue in Sudbury, leading to Ontario’s 1921 Damage by Fumes Arbitration Act. They show that the problem was politicized by local business elites seeking to prevent fumes from the region’s mining industry from destroying the area’s farms. Sean Kheraj’s article, “Urban Environments and the Animal Nuisance,” examines regulation of domestic animal husbandry in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg during the nineteenth century. The transformation of the urban environment during this period was similar across cities, as was the regulatory response. But Kheraj’s comparative analysis also highlights the important heterogeneity, across cities, of the wide-ranging challenges domestic animals presented to city leaders. All three of these research articles address questions about who contributed to urban nuisance policymaking and how these issues were contemporaneously understood and articulated.
In addition, we commissioned three book reviews of recent monographs on urban nuisances and environmental public health issues; namely, Aimée Boutin’s City of Noise, reviewed by Owen Temby; Ryan O’Connor’s The First Green Wave, reviewed by Arn Keeling; and Jessica van Horssen’s A Town Called Asbestos, reviewed by Amy Hay. These are included among the other book reviews in the journal issue.
The contents of the issue are as follows:
Stéphane Castonguay and Vincent Bernard, “National and Local Definitions of an Environmental Nuisance: Water Pollution and River Decontamination in Six Urban Areas of Quebec, 1945–1980”
Don Munton and Owen Temby, “Smelter Fumes, Local Interests, and Political Contestation in Sudbury, Ontario, during the 1910s”
Jessica van Horssen, “Summary and Conclusion to the Special Issue”
Shannon Stunden Bower, “The Affordances of MacKinnon Ravine: Fighting Freeways and Pursuing Government Reform in Edmonton, Alberta”
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