Christopher Sellers, PhD, MD, Professor of History at Stony Brook University, received the American Public Works Association (APWA) Abel Wolman Award at the APWA 2013 International Public Works Congress and Exposition in Chicago. Established in 1987, the Abel Wolman Award is presented annually by APWA’s Public Works Historical Society to recognize the best new book published in the field of public works history.
Sellers’ award-winning book, Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America, is published by the University of North Carolina Press. A revisionist history of suburbanizing especially after WWII, it tracks the infrastructure that was and also wasn’t built during this process and links the outcomes to the emergence of a local environmentalism. In the book Sellers details the environmental history of the suburbs, and the relevant infrastructure, which often remained un-worked – not a product of human hands.
Sellers notes that although suburb-building created major environmental problems, the environmental movement originated within the suburbs — not just in response to unchecked urban sprawl. He shows how the philosophy, science and emotions that catalyzed the environmental movement sprang directly from suburbanites’ lives and their ideas about nature, as well as the unique ecology of the neighborhoods in which they dwelt.
“The story is engagingly told and offers insights into the evolution of public values that influence what a jurisdiction’s residents want and are willing to pay for in their public works services. Additionally, the notes indicate that extensive use was made of personal interviews as well as archival sources,” said Andrew C. Lemer, Public Works Historical Society Awards Selection Committee member.
Sellers asserts that unless people today take notice and adjust to natural infrastructure, such as the aquifers underneath Long Island, the air hovering over Los Angeles, and the preexisting plants and animals and topography of the suburbs, there will be inherent difficulties such as tainted drinking water, invasive pests or landslides. “The classic notions of infrastructure and public works need revising, to take into account ecologizing,” Sellers said.
Sellers is a historian of environment, culture and health with a long-standing interest in the modern United States. He has written about the history of occupational and environmental health, of cities and suburbs, of industrial development and its risks, and of the environmental movement. More recently his work has explored ways in which this history can be intertwined, intersected and compared with that of other parts of the world.
The American Public Works Association is a not-for-profit, international organization of more than 28,500 members involved in the field of public works. APWA serves its members by promoting professional excellence and public awareness through education, advocacy and the exchange of knowledge. APWA is headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, and has an office in Washington, DC, along with 63 chapters across North America.