Tag Archives: urban studies

“Call the Midwife – A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times” by Jennifer Worth

This well written memoir was published in 2002, the first of three books about practicing as a midwife in the poverty stricken East End area of London (the Docklands) in the 1950s. The BBC produced a television series based on these books, broadcast beginning in 2012. Having seen just one episode, I was expecting Call the Midwife to be humorous and exciting. Instead I found it to be gritty and very sad. I actually skipped one chapter (about the workhouse), not feeling up to it.

The first surprise for me was how BAD conditions were in postwar London. Wartime damage to buildings had not been repaired. Housing was limited, so poor people lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Not every apartment had a bathroom or hot water. Men readily found employment on the docks, but the work was hard and poorly paid. Women married young and had many children. If they worked, they were poorly paid.

Nonetheless, there were positive aspects to life in the Docklands. People knew their neighbors well, and extended families were very supportive. Nurses and doctors were so respected that they were safe even in violent neighborhoods, where the police worked in pairs. Worth also mentions in passing the richly expressive Cockney dialect, almost a distinct language. She understood it most of the time, but certainly never spoke it.

Having just read  Empty Planet – the Shock of Global Population Decline by Bricker and Ibbitson (see blog entry dated August 15, 2019), I found myself pondering the “demographic transition”, the shift of a community from high birthrate with high death rate to (eventually) low birthrate with low death rate. Sometimes countries at these two extremes are described as “third world” and “developed”.  East End London in the 1950s was in a transitional state, with high birthrate and low death rate. It was challenging and (inherently?) unstable. The conditions described were so bad, I had trouble remembering that I was NOT reading about, say, the year 1900.

The quality of obstetrical care provided in this teeming slum was amazingly high. Midwives and nurses were well trained. Doctors and hospitals could deal with a wide range of emergencies. Most babies were born at home, attended by a midwife. Follow up as extensive as three nursing visits PER DAY might continue for several weeks. Doctors also made home visits, and extreme emergencies were handled by an Obstetric Flying Squad which could transport mother and baby to a hospital quickly if necessary. The maternal and infant survival rates were high. Little was available by way of contraception, so families with more than 10 children were common.

Death rates also fell because antibiotics became available and communicable diseases were increasingly controlled.

In the introduction to Call the Midwife, Worth attributes the disappearance of the Docklands community to “the closure of the docks, slum clearance. and the Pill”. When oral contraception became available, women chose to have much smaller families. The midwifery practice in which Worth was employed saw births fall (over a few years) from 80-100 per month to four or five per month! One can only speculate about how things would have changed if this reproductive revolution had NOT been accompanied by job loss and the wholesale destruction of old (but potentially useful) housing.

This book should be read by urban planners. Some experts think that the most sustainable human future will arise from high density urbanization.

“Ecology of Center City, Philadelphia” by Kenneth D. Frank

Yes, this is the same Ken Frank I wrote about on December 6.

Ken Frank is a hugely talented and enthusiastic amateur naturalist. He refers to his field of study as “the history of natural history”. Having lived in Center City, Philadelphia for 40 years, in retirement (from his career as a physician) he writes about the LIFE in the neighborhood he knows so well.

“If this book has a unifying theme, it is the many ways people have shaped communities of plants and animals that inhabit downtown, the ways these communities have defied human control and survived in spite of, or because of dense urban development…. The ecology of Center City has been dynamic and resilient – qualities I expect will endure.”

Ken Frank notices everything! Who ever heard of the bridge spider? It’s attracted to artificial light, and Frank identifies Walnut Street as a favored habitat. They build beautiful and intricate webs.

Frank documents the “pee line” on trees, where the presence or absence of dog pee determines the identity and color of lichens.

There’s a whole chapter on fireflies, and a page on morning glories. Frank claims to have found 26 species of plants growing on the paved “islands” in the middle of South Broad Street.

The photographs in this book are delightful.

“Ecology of Center City, Philadelphia” makes a great coffee table book, but it is extensively indexed and documented, hence useful to scientists and teachers in their work.

Ken Frank plans to post this masterpiece on line. What a great find it will be for curious future investigators! The publisher is Fitler Square Press.

New environmental classic?

Crow Planet: Finding Our Place in the Zoopolis by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, 2009.

This book has two titles. The one I just entered above is from the title page that downloaded into my Kindle. But on Amazon, I see Crow Planet: Essential Lessons from the Urban Wilderness, and in fact that’s what shows up in the home page list of my Kindle. Wait, maybe the problem is the unlaut, the double dot that sometimes shows up in German. The second “o” in “Zoopolis” is supposed to have an umlaut, no doubt to let you know the word has four syllables, not three. Maybe Kindle text hasn’t got the umlaut? But I digress.

I do like the word “zoopolis” (however you choose to pronounce it). It refers to the city as a place occupied by both humans and other living things, generally including crows. Haupt considers crows a type of “indicator” bird. They thrive alongside humans better than most birds, so they become very numerous when other birds are unable to persist. In other words, too many crows are a sign of trouble.

Haupt makes the point that we can study “nature” even when we live in the city, starting with the study of crows and moving on to other birds, insects, invertebrates, and the mammals that live in cities. (I will never voluntarily study a rat.) Her advice on how to be a naturalist (#1 – study!) is sound whether you plan to explore urban nature or a national park. She made a personal decision to carry binoculars whenever she goes out in the city, just as she does in wilder places.

Haupt makes multiple references to Aldo Leopold, whose Sand County Almanac was first published in 1949, before the word “environment” came into common use. His comments on the ethics of how humans interact with their surroundings still ring true after 60 years.

Toward the end of her book, Haupt addresses the issue of fear. She’s afraid of what the future holds. So am I, sometimes, and so are some scientists I know personally and respect. But Haupt finds reasons for hope, despite the daunting prospects we all face.

A new classic? Maybe. In the meantime, a good book, because it reminds us that nature is here, not somewhere else where we can only hope to visit once in a while.