“Light and air” is a very common excuse that people give for why we must have basic zoning laws, and while nowadays a lot of people mean it simply in an aesthetic sense – another way of saying “I like to be able to look out a window and not see another skyscraper 50 feet away” (though for some reason when said interaction happens on the second or third floor, it’s okay?) – the origins of it are very interesting, and I believe crucial to understanding today’s urban plans. Of course, the ideas that turn-of-the-century planners had about disease and density turned out to be totally incorrect – privacy and being able to look out a window is nice, but the lack thereof is not a great health risk. As Robert Fogelson writes on pages 125-26 of Downtown
Skyscrapers were also a serious menace to public health, advocates of height limits charged. As early as the mid 1880s, they said that tall office buildings were turning the streets below into dark, damp, and gloomy canyons. During the winter they blocked the sun, leaving the cold streets even colder. During the summer, wrote American Architect and Building News, they acted as “storehouses of heat,” driving up the temperature after sunset, making the once cool and refreshing nights unbearable. The skyscrapers also shrouded the nearby buildings in darkness, forcing the office workers to rely on artificial light – which, it was believed, put a strain on the eyes. Worst of all, the skyscrapers deprived both the streets below and the adjacent buildings of fresh air and sunlight. To Americans who still held that disease was a product of the “miasma,” the noxious vapors that permeated the cities, the lack of fresh air was bad enough. To Americans who believed in the new germ theory of disease, the lack of sunlight was even worse. For it was sunlight, described by doctors as “the best disinfectant,” “the best bacteriacide,” and “our greatest sterilizer,” that killed the microbes that caused disease. Sunlight and wind were as vital to public health as pure water, argued a representative of the Chicago Medical Society in 1891; without them “life would be almost impossible in crowded communities.”
From a sanitary viewpoint, skyscrapers were “an outrage,” declared George B. Post, a prominent New York architect. By creating the conditions “in which bacteria and microbes flourish best,” skyscrapers turned the streets into what a Chicago doctor called “the breeding ground for germs.” “To shut off the sunbeams from the earth,” a Chicago businessman added, “Is to encourage the bacteria, to breed fevers, to sap vitality, to make men and women pale cellar plants.” A few skyscrapers here and there would not pose much of a problem, critics conceded. But “if the down-town area were covered with twenty-story buildings,” the Chicago doctor claimed,” There would hardly be enough sunlight and air to support life.” There would be a sharp rise in the incidence of bronchitis, pneumonia, and consumption (or tuberculosis), the so-called white plague. The business district would become as unhealthy as the tenement districts, a grim prospect indeed. Writing at the turn of the century, another opponent of the skyscraper pointed out that some New Yorkers were planning to build a hospital for consumptives at the same time that others were planning to build a thirty-story skyscraper. This made no sense, he declared. “We build hospitals for the poor consumptive, and then we turn around and erect skyscraping structures where consumption may breed.” “We shall not lack for patients,” he said.
This isn’t just a quirky factoid – it’s an integral part of the modern antipathy towards density, as much as the consequences of the intellectually bankrupt racial eugenics of the era still reverberate today. Now, of course today’s planners don’t oppose forests of skyscrapers because they believe in the miasma theory of disease, but it is striking that the profession still accepts its turn-of-the-century health-based reforms as dogma. Nowadays we have a slightly different justifications for why the laws were a good idea, but the planning outcomes remain stubbornly similar. Then again, given that planners have never really faced up to their pre-war history (the rot only started after the war, they always say), I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise.