…the yellow fever …is generated only in low close, and ill-cleansed parts of a town, I have supposed it practicable to prevent it’s 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 & trees. every square of houses will be surrounded by four open squares, & every house will front an open square. the atmosphere of such a town would be like that of the country, insusceptible of the miasmata which produce yellow fever. I have accordingly proposed that the enlargements of the city of New Orleans … shall be on this plan.
To Constantin François Chasseboeuf Volney, February 8, 1805
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Compassionate leaders promote public health.
Thomas Jefferson met the French philosopher Volney (1757-1820) during his service in France. More than half of this lengthy, wide-ranging letter dealt with the ravages of yellow fever in coastal America. Jefferson fled swampy Washington for Monticello every August and September, when the disease was prominent.
Jefferson presumed the disease flourished because of crowded, unhealthy living conditions in large cities, all in the Atlantic tidewater region. To combat this, he proposed a plan for future urban expansion that would leave half of every development in green space. Using the example of a checkerboard, he suggested all squares of one color for homes, all squares of the other color to be left natural. Every house on the block would front on open space.
It would be long after Jefferson’s death before the cause of yellow fever was discovered. It wasn’t the crowded swampy atmosphere along the coast, but the mosquitoes that thrived in that environment.