Such a constitution of atmosphere being requisite to originate this disease as is generated only in low, close, and ill-cleansed parts of a town, I have supposed it practicable to prevent its generation by building our cities on a more open plan. Take, for instance, the chequer board for a plan. Let the black squares only be building squares, and the white ones be left open, in turf and trees. Every square of houses will be surrounded by four open squares, and every house will front an open square. The atmosphere of such a town would be like that of the country, insusceptible of the miasmata [diseased air] which produce yellow fever. I have accordingly proposed that the enlargements of the city of New Orleans, which must immediately take place …
To C. F. de C. Volney, February 8, 1805
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Far-sighted leaders plan for public health.
Earlier in this letter, Jefferson wrote at length about the ravages of yellow fever. While decades would pass before the mosquito was identified as the cause, Jefferson the scientist studied the evidence. It struck in the late summer, was worst in the tidewater areas, especially in cities where people were crowded together. It wasn’t contagious, and exposure to fresh air often hastened the recovery of some of the afflicted. Bad air of some kind might be the cause.
Jefferson loved the country life and cared not at all for crowded cities. In this excerpt, he proposed the spaciousness of the country be incorporated as cities expanded, as a way to promote public health. If urban expansion was designed as a checkerboard, and only the squares of one color built upon, every block of development would be surrounded by four blocks of green space. Every house on every block would also face green space.
Such a plan would not only make city living more like country life but would free urban landscapes from the danger of diseased air. Although he proposed such a plan to begin in New Orleans, his idea was not adopted.