IN 1898 , DELEGATES FROM ACROSS THE GLOBE gathered in New York City for the world’s
first international urban planning conference. One topic dominated the discussion.
It was not housing, land use, economic development, or infrastructure. The delegates
were driven to desperation by horse manure.
The horse was no newcomer on the urban scene. But by the late 1800s, the problem
of horse pollution had reached unprecedented heights. The growth in the horse population
was outstripping even the
rapid rise in the number of human city dwellers. American cities were drowning in
horse manure as well as other unpleasant byproducts of the era’s predominant mode
of transportation: urine, flies, congestion, carcasses, and traffic accidents. Widespread
cruelty to horses was a form of environmental degradation as well.
The situation seemed dire. In 1894, the Times of London estimated that by 1950 every
street in the city would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure. One New York prognosticator
of the 1890s concluded that by 1930 the horse droppings would rise to Manhattan’s
third-story windows. A public health and sanitation crisis of almost unimaginable
And no possible solution could be devised. After all, the horse had been the dominant
mode of transportation for thousands of years. Horses were absolutely essential for
the functioning of the nineteenth century city—for personal transportation, freight
haulage, and even mechanical power. Without horses, cities would quite literally
starve. All efforts to mitigate the problem were proving woefully inadequate. Stumped
by the crisis, the urban planning conference declared its work fruitless and broke
up in three days instead of the scheduled ten.