A Deep Dive Into an Undervalued Urban Marvel

Night urban skyline

The new book Sewer offers an inside look at the history and future of wastewater infrastructure, from the Victorian era to tomorrow’s “smart sewers.”

December 26, 2022
Linda Poon - Bloomberg

Deep beneath the city, an intricate network of pipes and pumps carries our waste to treatment facilities. Ideally, the entire process is hidden from the eyes — and nose — of the urban dweller who, from the moment the toilet flushes, remains blissfully unaware of what it takes to direct billions of gallons of wastewater out of a city.

The development of sewer infrastructure is one of the perks of modern urban living, rendering the consequences of our daily habits out of sight, out of mind — until it doesn’t.

In the US and beyond, many sanitation systems date back to the early 20th century or earlier, and they’re showing their age: Increasingly heavy downpours as a result of climate change often overwhelm antiquated combined sewers that collect stormwater as well as wastewater, while leaky pipes and trash-laden clogs bring stinky backups that can poison local waterways. But as cities scramble to repair and update their networks, another challenge lurks: Getting people to stop taking for granted a public good that’s essential but invisible.


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