The York University Magazine

Fall 2015

The alumni magazine of York University

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improvements in the quality of water. On the other hand, given the amount of chlorine put into our water supplies to combat disease, we are no longer likely to die of typhoid, yet we are more than ever likely to contract some form of cancer due to the amount of so-called 'organochlorines' dumped in the Great Lakes environment." McMahon is also interested in the inputs and outputs from our cities, which have been shaped not only by the engineers of our water and wastewater systems, but also by public health professionals and, indeed, members of the wider public. Remember the "Sewage Sisters" who battled for changes to the Ashbridges Bay sewage treatment processes in the 1990s? R. C. Harris, Toronto's commissioner of public works from 1912-45, was considered somewhat radical for his time in that he believed in technology for solving the problem of pollution and moving away from the 19th century idea that the best "solution to pollution was dilution." The result was the first large-scale rapid sand filtration plant in North America and the first superchlorination process. "The point was and is today to use bio- mechanical and chemical engineering to insulate us from our polluted envi- ronment, rather than cleaning up the environment itself," notes McMahon. "Unlike New York City, we never had a large and natural, upstream source of water to draw on, so we've had to use lake water and treat it with chlo- rine. Originally, Toronto's water came from the inner harbour, but that was so polluted that it was deemed too much of a risk." Along with technological change for treating waste and water were con- comitant collective east-end neigh- bourhood uprisings against plants like Ashbridges Bay, which historically received all the waste from Toronto's more affluent neighbourhoods. Once in Toronto's east end, it was processed and burned. Aside from air quality issues, there is also a history of collat- eral natural disasters. Ashbridges Bay, filled in for industries now gone and a sewage megaplant that continues to be built and rebuilt, used to be one of Lake Ontario's largest premier wet- lands. Only a remnant remains. As for what our sewage can tell us about our cities and the ways we live in them, McMahon says first and foremost we can find nature in the city if we think of a few related things: one is that our bodies are largely made up of bacteria; another is that, going by percentage of weight, we are comprised largely of water so, in a sense, many of us "come from" the Great Lakes. Our bodies are that part of nature which we directly inhabit, he says. "We get to a wider nature through our water and sewage treatment systems, and we live in a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. We need to nurture our relation with non-human life forms and bring them in line with the more conflicted ele- ments of our urban political ecology." McMahon's background includes a master's degree from the Univer- sity of London's Bartlett School of Architecture & Planning and work as the curator of exhibits at the former Metro Archives in Toronto. His talk was based on two essays: "We All Live Downstream," which appeared in the Coach House Press book HTO: Toronto's Water from Lake Iroquois to Lost Rivers to Low-flow Toilets; and "Toronto's Organic Machines," which appeared in Urban Explorations, Environmental Histories of the Greater Toronto Area. The latter collection of essays was prepared under the editorial direction of York Professor Anders Sandberg. Originally, Toronto's water came from the inner harbour, but that was so polluted that it was deemed too much of a risk Fall 2015 The York University Magazine 29

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