From the 1860s to the 1930s, Argentina welcomed some 3.5 million European immigrants as workers in its growing meat production industry. Argentinian policymakers sought to improve the hygiene of the cattle slaughtered but also the “social hygiene” of the incoming workers. These technocrats were influenced by the eugenics movement that had spread across Europe and was later adopted by the Nazi regime in Germany. In this instance, the idea was to perfect humans through the selection of desirable traits and exposure to nature.
According to Fabiola López-Durán, an associate professor at Rice University, hygienics and eugenics in Argentina were, “in fact, connected, revealing a bio-political coupling of the city and countryside; human and animal bodies; and land and resources.”
Beliefs about the “cleansing” benefits of exposure to nature guided the creation of new parks, playgrounds, open-air schools, and sports facilities. Technocrats, physicians, industrialists, and landscape architects were driven to use “health, hygiene, fresh air, cleanliness, sunlight, productivity, and ‘whiteness'” in service of this broad national goal to create a more perfect, rational society.
At the Dumbarton Oaks’ symposium on landscape, sport, and the environment, López-Durán revealed the findings of her investigation into this disturbing chapter in modern Latin American history.
In a push to modernize Argentina in the mid 1800s, the country’s leaders sought to “rationalize production and reproduction,” re-organizing human life. Upon arrival in Argentina, immigrants were categorized, with those demonstrating more desirable “white” traits sent to the cities to power the new industries, and those with less desirable “middle eastern” traits sent to the countryside to work in farms. Native populations were the target of mass killings.
In the midst of this brutal reconfiguration of society, nature played a strange role, too. Intensive exposure to nature was selectively used to strengthen those with “weak characters.” And natural spaces were also strategically inserted into the urban realm in order to improve the moral health of cities.
Argentina’s leaders were inspired by France, which had undertaken a “social hygiene” campaign in an effort to strengthen the health and character of the French people after the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire in 1815. “There was widespread fear of degradation and decay.” French doctors and technocrats called for integrating nature into the built environment in order to build a stronger population.
As Sun-Young Park at George Mason University argued in an earlier talk, urban gymnasiums, which integrated nature play, were built in French cities to enhance the physical and moral education of the population. “They became social theaters to display fit bodies, a secular basilica, that would remove the germs of degeneration,” Park said.
Buenos Aires is itself inspired by Paris, which was viewed as the most civilized city. Carlos Thays, a French-Argentine pupil of famed French landscape architect Édouard André, designed the tree-lined boulevards and public gardens that make Buenos Aires feel so Parisian. López-Durán said the goal was to use “green space to revitalize the blood of the cities, to oxygenate them.”
In Argentina, there was the added fear of “pestilence and disease” coming from the dirty work of meat production. The industry was modernized with the latest hygienic standards. Workers were placed in campuses designed for maximum sunlight and clean air, but often next to slaughterhouses. In these complexes, industrialists built parks in which workers participated in mass physical exercises. These places helped “transform human being into productive citizens.”
One example is the Parque Patricios, which was built for workers and their families next to a slaughtering facility. López-Durán said its playgrounds, which were away from the street, was designed “to save children from bad influences.”
Urban children deemed particularly weak or at risk from bad influences were sent to open-air schools outside the city. This approach was guided by the ideas of French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, which are now described as Lamarckism (or Lamarckian inheritance). His idea was that negative environmental impacts on a body, or misuse of a body, can create acquired characteristics that are inheritable. Healthy environments can then prevent or undo the acquisition of undesirable characteristics that can impact later generations.
López-Durán said children exposed to malnutrition or who had syphilitic or alcoholic parents could be regenerated through exposure to natural spaces, what she called “clinical landscapes.” Children studied under shady trees, farmed garden patches, undertook physical education, sun bathed, and studied in hygienic facilities overseen by doctors and teachers.
Every day, the children would be evaluated by the doctor and measured on their intelligence, body metrics, and cognition. “Any children perceived to be defective would stay; if they were deemed ‘normal,’ they were returned to the city to regular schools.” The idea was that children could be made perfect through a system of surveillance and control. All this was part of an effort to “improve the bio-capital of the nation.”
Back in cities, social engineering continued throughout a worker’s lifespan. The state built sports facilities to “improve meat workers’ bodies.” Outdoor physical education facilities incorporated soccer fields, volley ball courts, and exercise areas to improve labor performance in the slaughterhouses. “Teamwork values drove organizational behavior.” Women were also controlled by the state through the healthcare they were given. The idea was to make the industrial complex into a kind of utopia of productivity.
In her disturbing conclusion, López-Durán asserted that “eugenics is alive and well today,” despite widespread condemnation about its long-time association with racism, sexism, discrimination, the genocidal horrors of Nazi Germany, and mass sterilizations around the world.
“Everyday in the news, we can read about the rise of epigenetics,” the chemical modification of our genes through environmental exposure and our own actions. The study of epigenetics is focused on determining “how the environment changes the body.” These studies are leading to new evaluations of the impact of nature exposure on our genetic health, and new planning and design approaches that play out in the therapeutic landscape and equitable “parks for all” movements.
One on side is the idea that all of society should reap the many health and cognitive benefits of regular exposure to nearby nature. We need to democratize access to green space. But with a look towards the strange history of these ideas, it may be interesting to ask: is a new, subtler, “therapeutic” form of social hygiene effort now underway?