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What is Urban Sanitation?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Urban sanitation is a form of sanitation which focuses on maintaining sanitary conditions in urban environments. Many people think specifically of the collection, treatment, and disposal of human waste when they hear the words “urban sanitation,” but sanitation in urban environments is a much more complex system. Sanitation is an especially pressing issue in slums, where crowded conditions and poor sanitation contribute to frequent outbreaks of disease which threaten the inhabitants of slums in addition to exposing other city residents to health risks.

Historically, urban communities gave little thought to sanitation, which turned into a major problem in some areas. The edges of many urban streets were piled with garbage which could include dead animals along with untreated human waste. Walking in urban streets was an exercise in avoidance, as people freely threw garbage and human waste out into the street without a care for those passing by, and disease was rampant as a result of waste materials on the streets and in urban waterways. A growing understanding of hygiene combined with social pressure from people tired of living in filth eventually led to the development or urban sanitation.

The purpose of urban sanitation is to reduce risks to human health by managing factors in the urban environment which can contribute to health problems. One of the major factors is human waste, which is generated in large volumes in urban areas. Sewers which collect such waste and route it to central processing facilities are, therefore, a key aspect of urban sanitation. So are facilities like public toilets, which discourage people from using the streets as a bathroom, along with portable toilets for major events which are designed to provide attendees with a location to safely eliminate waste.

Urban sanitation also involves the management of water supplies. A good sanitation service is concerned with providing safe drinking water for citizens. This can include isolating wells to prevent them from being contaminated, securing water supplies from outside the city, and developing a safe network of pipes to deliver water to residents.

Sanitation departments must also concern themselves with garbage. Most urban areas have a garbage collection service, allowing citizens to set out their garbage on a specific day for teams of collectors who will gather it and deliver it to a processing facility. Recycling and composting may be elements of municipal garbage collection, designed to reduce strain on the environment and provide additional revenue for the garbage collection agency, which keeps costs to consumers down.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By B707 — On Aug 04, 2011

Some urban areas have made a lot of progress in establishing ways to process and purify waste water so it will be suitable for drinking, cooking and cleaning. It is an long procedure and an expensive one, but if we recycle water, there will be a lot more water available for the future.

I don't know how many urban areas in this country have waste water processing plants, but for those who don't, I hope it is in the plans. It's the way to go.

By PinkLady4 — On Aug 03, 2011

Recently I read in a historical book about the awful urban conditions in the early 1900s in New York City. The city was overcrowded with immigrants who entered America through Ellis Island. The garbage was heaped deep on the streets, and sanitation was pretty much non-existence. Rats and other pests were all over the place.

Thankfully, things are much better now. Although, I'm sure there are some urban areas where garbage is dumped here and there. And some urban areas have some infestations of rats and such.

I think that in quite a few urban areas, the purity of the water supply could be improved.

By bluespirit — On Aug 03, 2011

I lived in a small town in Mississippi for undergraduate school and they had to do the same to recycle - load up all of their recyclables into their car and take it to a recycling center.

I also know someone who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina which is a medium sized city and my friend also did not have curbside recycling.

So my guess would be that we still have not gained curbside recycling as the rule as opposed the exception in the United States.

By Tomislav — On Aug 03, 2011

I remember learning about how people just used to throw their waste and garbage into the street during our unit on Shakespeare. I could not believe it, as of course it would be hard to imagine with our ever growing sanitary society, now everything seems to be 99.9% germ free.

I live in an urban area where recycling is curbside and is a part of our urban sanitation plan. I work in a more rural area and they have to travel if they want to recycle! Is this common - for areas to not have curbside recycling?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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