Skip to main content

Urban Lowlands

A History of Neighborhoods, Poverty, and Planning

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

In Urban Lowlands, Steven T. Moga looks closely at the Harlem Flats in New York City, Black Bottom in Nashville, Swede Hollow in Saint Paul, and the Flats in Los Angeles, to interrogate the connections between a city’s actual landscape and the poverty and social problems that are often concentrated at its literal lowest points. Taking an interdisciplinary perspective on the history of US urban development from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, Moga reveals patterns of inequitable land use, economic dispossession, and social discrimination against immigrants and minorities. In attending to the landscapes of neighborhoods typically considered slums, Moga shows how physical and policy-driven containment has shaped the lives of the urban poor, while wealth and access to resources have been historically concentrated in elevated areas—truly “the heights.” Moga’s innovative framework expands our understanding of how planning and economic segregation alike have molded the American city.


“Although not all urban poor lived in lowland neighborhoods, this study of the demographic is an important contribution for all urban scholars, though not for general readers. It is well written and effectively illustrated and researched.”


Urban Lowlands offers ideas that should attract widespread attention among urban historians. . . . This fine book weaves together several strands of United States urban history over the period from Reconstruction to the New Deal. . . . Moga makes excellent use of maps and illustrations to show correlations between altitude and social or political discourses. Among other things, he casts new light on geographic processes in relation to changing understanding of disease, attitudes about immigrants, the introduction of zoning, redlining, and the ongoing redefinition of 'slum.'” 

The Metropole

"In this compelling study of urban lowlands in four American cities, Steven T. Moga argues that there is a correlation between urban landscapes and social hierarchies."

Pacific Historical Review

"Laid out in six crisply written chapters, Moga’s argument moves smoothly from an introduction that reviews historical understanding of the transition from bottomlands to lowland neighborhoods in American cities, into four case studies, and concludes by reiterating that lowland neighborhoods are constructed and the legacies of their construction shape urban landscapes today. The comparative study makes a compelling case for environmental injustice as an essential feature of urban capitalism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. . . . I enthusiastically recommend this book to anyone interested in contemporary urban landscapes. Learning about the history of lowland neighborhoods will illuminate your understanding of past and present landscapes. Easy to read, illustrated by intriguing maps, photographs, and drawings, Urban Lowlands is accessible to a broad audience of practitioners, researchers, and students. With compelling examples, Steven Moga reminds us that the unequal impacts of environmental issues in contemporary cities have deep historical roots that we disregard at our peril."

New Mexico Historical Society

“Moga makes an exceptionally persuasive case regarding the factors shaping the development of lowland areas. He clearly establishes the importance of disease theory and racial attitudes as critical to urban decision-making. What is most impressive about Urban Lowlands is that Moga seamlessly connects his story of bottomlands to larger developments in urban planning in the post-1930s period.”

David Soll, author of Empire of Water: An Environmental and Political History of the New York Water

“Moga’s original and well-illustrated history of bottoms and lowlands in four American cities will fascinate everyone interested in urban landscape history.”

Dolores Hayden, author of The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History

Urban Lowlands marshals compelling evidence to illuminate the intersection of topography, poverty, health, and race. This important book is required reading for all who care about the environment of cities and how it shapes the lives of those who live there.”

Anne Whiston Spirn, author of The Language of Landscape

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Low Wards

1 From Bottomlands to Bottom Neighborhoods

2 Harlem Flats
New York, New York

3 Black Bottom
Nashville, Tennessee

4 Swede Hollow
Saint Paul, Minnesota

5 The Flats
Los Angeles, California

6 Landscapes of Poverty and Power

Epilogue: Lowland Legacies


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press