Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 1998


Published in Great Plains Research Vol. 8 No. 2, 1998. Copyright ©1998 The Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Used by permission.


The thirteen articles in this fine volume make a strong contribution to the intellectual effort to put the environment back into urban history by elevating it from a mere "stage" or "setting" to an active independent variable which shaped the course of urban development. The authors' collective goal is to demonstrate that the residents of St. Louis and its region were engaged in a dynamic interaction with the environment from the origins of human settlement in the area, and that the actions and strategies they undertook to generate urban development were shaped as much by the environment as by their economic, political, social, and cultural values.

The shifting nature of this interaction between urbanizing man and the environment is drawn vividly in a series of topical articles arranged in chronological order. At times nature indeed acted directly upon humans, supporting the work's general thesis. Yet one also observes residents gaining the upper hand and subsuming environment into the matrix of decisions that urbanizing people carry out to push economic development forward. As the villages of Native Peoples grew larger, they faced more disease and demographic decay, and thus began to disperse. When European-American settlers chose town sites, they paid close attention not only to the geography of the rivers and the resource base of the region, but also to the hydrologic cycle of the rivers, and avoided settlement on flood plains (a decision that saved St. Louis many times, including in 1993, from serious flood damage). In doing so, they understood or gradually came to understand that St. Louis was located at a point of intersection or in a "zone of encounter" between different geographic, climatic, and geological regions, a fact that reinforced St. Louis' booster self-image as a future center of both regional and national economies.