Proposal preview

Water use and the urban environment under pressure: lessons from history.

Historically, the availability of adequate water supplies, and the development of effective water treatment and waste removal technologies are critical to urbanization and economic development. The costs associated with required water technology create endogenous limits to urban growth; as these costs increase, rising rents and taxes can act as limits to city size by cutting disposable incomes and capital accumulation. Ineffective water technology intensifies urban disamenities, reducing labour productivity and human capital formation, and requiring higher urban wage premiums to attract the migrants needed to maintain city growth. In the coming century, climate change is likely to put increased pressure on all aspects of water supply and urban development. In some instances water supplies may be decreased, in others the risk of infection from water-borne parasites may increase. Severe weather events are likely to increase the pressure on urban infrastructure. The challenges cities face in securing adequate water supplies, and separating clean water from waste water are path-dependent processes, highly sensitive to initial conditions that exert a lasting impact and shape and constrain subsequent land use and choices of infrastructure. In this session, an international panel of economic, urban, and environmental historians will consider a range of cases from cities around the world, over the 19th and 20th centuries. The aim is to compare and contrast the ways in which cities have responded to events such as drought, floods and water-related diseases, to determine whether there are lessons from the past that will be useful for future responses to extreme climatic events.


  • Martin P Shanahan, University of South Australia,,
  • Lionel Frost, Monash University, Australia,,

Session members

  • Louis P Cain, Loyola University Chicago and Northwestern University,
  • Jonathan N Chapman, European University Institute,
  • Andrea Gaynor, University of Western Australia,
  • Heather Goodall, University of Technology Sydney, Australia,
  • Jenny Gregory, University of Western Australia,
  • Sok Chul Hong, Seoul National University,
  • Char Miller, Pomona College, California, USA,
  • Ruth Morgan, Monash University,
  • Seamus O’Hanlon, Monash University,
  • Joel A Tarr, Carnegie Mellon University,
  • Werner Troesken, University of Pittsburgh,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Martin P Shanahan, University of South Australia,