A Pace College student in a gas mask "smells" a magnolia blossom in City Hall Park on Earth Day, April 22, 1970, in New York. AP Photo

In 1970, cities epitomized everything that was wrong with the planet. That's changed, partly because of Earth Day.

Not long ago, cities were like a cancer in the environmental imagination. Proposing a national environmental agenda to Congress in January 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin remarked:

The unforeseen—or ignored—consequences of an urbanizing, affluent, mobile, more populous society have poisoned, scarred, and polluted what once was a beautiful land "from sea to shining sea." It is the laboring man, living in the shadows of the spewing smokestacks of industry, who feels the bite of the "disposable society." Or the commuter inching in spurts along an expressway. Or the housewife paying too much for products that begin to fall apart too soon. Or the student watching the University building program' destroy a community. Or the black man living alongside the noisy, polluted truck routes through the central city ghetto.

Nelson was touching on Americans' growing awareness of the environmental disaster that was urban, industrialized life. In 1965, air pollution in New York City had killed eighty people during a brief weather inversion. The oil-saturated Cuyahoga River between Cleveland and Akron regularly caught fire.

"Most cities had visibly polluted skies," says Adam Rome, an environmental historian and author of a history of Earth Day. "There were sites of water pollution all over the place. There was trash all over the streets. Cities epitomized everything that was wrong with the planet."

Children of the convent of the sacred Heart School in New York City use brooms on April 22, 1970, as they clean a monument in the city's Union Square. The children came out in force in observance of the first Earth Day. (AP Photo).

Nelson and his troop of young organizers seized on the country's political consciousness that had been shaped by Vietnam. On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans took to their streets, parks, and campuses to demonstrate against the degradation of the planet. They trashed cars, gave speeches on overpopulation and sprawl (anti-suburban rhetoric had been gaining traction for decades), and wore gas masks to emphasize the risks accompanying urban life detached from nature.

That first Earth Day launched the modern environmental movement. The Environmental Protection Agency was formed in its wake. The Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts have it to thank.

And so do the many people who, today, think of cities as ecologically friendly. David Owen's New Yorker article, "Green Manhattan," is only 11 years old, and yet it marks a kind of transition in the rhetoric around the environmental impact of cities. Owen wrote:

Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams, but in comparison with the rest of America it's a model of environmental responsibility. By most significant measures, New York is the greenest community in the United States, and one of the greenest cities in the world.

Owen's argument, based on density and low per-capita energy use, is now so familiar it seems simple. But looking at cities as environmental boons is relatively new in the public imagination. "People had the idea before, of course," says Rome (Jane Jacobs and William Whyte among them), "but it's really only crystallized in the last 10 to 15 years."

Rome says it is the success of Earth Day, in part, that has allowed the ideological shift. "It's because of the environmental movement that air and water quality is so much better," he says. "We've done a lot to deal with toxic waste and pollution—many things that people were concerned about that tended to be concentrated in cities."

Kenneth Opat is squirted with oil pistols by Dorothy Goldsmith, left, and Rita Webb, at Tulane University in New Orleans as students tagged Louisiana's oil industry with the "polluter of the month" award on April 22, 1970. (AP Photo)

Earth Day also helped build new academic fields around environmental science and planning, which, in the 1990s, gave rise to the term "carbon footprint," a term that has helped contemporary thinkers and scientists "build sustainability arguments... that now often favor cities," says William Cronon, an author and environmental historian.

In 2015, Earth Day feels fairly anodyne. The litter pick-ups, the festivals selling recycled crayons, even the President's speech in the Everglades: It all seems quaint in light of the daunting climate issues we confront daily in the news. But if you, like plenty of our readers, look to cities for a bit of environmental hope, give a nod to Earth Day. It's what made New York City look green.

A woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty poses on a float full of trash during Earth Day observances in Florida in 1970. (AP Photo)

Top image: AP Photo

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A woman stares out at crowds from behind a screen, reflecting on a post-pandemic world where exposure with others feels scary.

    What Our Post-Pandemic Behavior Might Look Like

    After each epidemic and disaster, our social norms and behaviors change. As researchers begin to study coronavirus’s impacts, history offers clues.

  2. Maps

    The Three Personalities of America, Mapped

    People in different regions of the U.S. have measurably different psychological profiles.

  3. illustration of a late-1800s bathroom

    How Infectious Disease Defined the American Bathroom

    Cholera and tuberculosis outbreaks transformed the design and technology of the home bathroom. Will Covid-19 inspire a new wave of hygiene innovation?

  4. Maps

    Your Maps of Life Under Lockdown

    Stressful commutes, unexpected routines, and emergent wildlife appear in your homemade maps of life during the coronavirus pandemic.

  5. photo: an open-plan office

    Even the Pandemic Can’t Kill the Open-Plan Office

    Even before coronavirus, many workers hated the open-plan office. Now that shared work spaces are a public health risk, employers are rethinking office design.