This is a true story, and it’s based on the research of Dr. Scott Nixon at the University of Rhode Island. I spent last week at a conference in Newport, and was entirely fascinated by his plenary talk. Besides being a neat juxtaposition of history and technology, it has some interesting implications for worldbuilding in science fiction.
First, let me orient you. This is Rhode Island, and Narragansett Bay is outlined in red. Providence, the largest city in Rhode Island, is at the north end of the bay, about where it touches the red box. Rhode Island itself is 48 miles (77 km) long and 37 miles (60 km) wide.
The Narragansetts and the Wampanoag tribes lived along the bay when Giovanni da Verrazzano found it in 1524, and the first European settlement was established in the 1630s. It’s really the Europeans we’re concerned with here.
Providence was founded in 1636 by religious dissenters. After the American Revolution it had 7,614 people. The economy depended mostly on the bay for fishing, with a bit of agriculture.
The Industrial Revolution made it to the new United States when textile machinery was built in Rhode Island in 1787, following English plans. Industrialization took off, and by 1831 the population of Providence had reached 17,000.
The city is right on the water, at the head of Narragansett Bay, so anything it does affects the water quality of the entire bay. But even as Providence became a thriving industrial city, its impact on water quality was surprisingly low. as its population increased enormously In 1865, when the population of Providence was 54,595, eelgrass beds were mapped all along the Providence River.
So what? Well, eelgrass (Zostera marina) is very sensitive to nitrogen levels in the water. All those people in Providence weren’t affecting the water quality much at all, or the eelgrass would be gone.
That’s a lot of people; how were they having such a small impact on the bay? Well, this is the age of outhouses. Most human waste was solid, or only small quantities of liquid. When you have to haul water from the town well, you don’t use very much of it. Most waste stayed where it was put, only leaching out slowly over time.
I’m certainly not claiming that outhouses are a good way to manage a city’s worth of human waste: Providence had at least two major cholera epidemics in the mid-nineteenth century. But that pollution wasn’t making it into the bay. Much of the human and animal solid waste was being hauled into the country and used as fertilizer.
The prospect of a public water supply was an exciting one, and after a couple decades of planning, the water was turned on in 1871. Public health and fire safety, not to mention simple convenience, were strong motivations.
People started using water at much, much higher rates: flush toilets! no more hauling buckets! (From 7-11 liters per person per day to 190-380.) The city planners expected that the existing street gutter system would be adequate to deal with the increased volume. They were wrong.
It didn’t take long at all for the cesspools and privy vaults to overflow and seep into the streets. Planning for a sewer system began almost immediately, but it didn’t begin service until 1878.
Providence wasn’t alone in this: many cities installed public waterworks in the nineteenth century, and none began planning for sewers until after the water was running.
The sewer system carried waste directly into the rivers. Where before the nutrients were being taken to inland farms, now they were swept right into the bay. The first Providence sewage treatment plant didn’t begin operation until 1901, and by then there were 175,597 people in Providence.
The eelgrass was long gone.
And it wasn’t just the people. Providence relied on horses for transport and hauling. The number of horses in the city peaked around 1900, and then fell off sharply when the automobile was introduced. During that peak, though, an estimated 90 g of horse manure per square meter coated the city streets.
Providence has gotten much better at managing its wastes over the past century, of course, although there’s still room for improvement.
I came away from this lecture with two thoughts about worldbuilding for fantasy and science fiction.
First, even though we often set stories in horse-dependent worlds and with primitive technologies, we don’t usually think about what comes in and what goes out. Scientists call this mass balance. Horses need to eat a lot, and they excrete a lot. So do people. How is this handled in fiction? (Usually by ignoring it!) Where do things come from, and where do they go? Thinking about this some can help to create a world that feels real. Energy too: where does it come from?
And then there’s the impact of new technologies. It seems so obvious in retrospect, but nobody considered how water use would increase when it became easy to use it. The city had to struggle to catch up, and the bay will never be the same. That kind of threshold event can make for a great story.
What are the human and environmental consequences of the next great thing?