Park-goers enjoy the view of the Manhattan skyline from Central Park. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

It wasn’t long ago that urban life was seen as antithetical to nature.

During COP21, my inbox has been full of press releases proclaiming cities as leaders in the fight against climate change. “Cities set the pace and scope of progress until any COP21 deal kicks in,” one from C40 Cities proclaims. And it’s true: Many mayors have been addressing climate change with adaptation strategies and CO2 reductions that have rightfully served as inspiration at the meeting of global leaders.

The environmental advances that have taken place in cities are remarkable for many reasons, but I want to talk about just one of them: Up until quite recently, cities were villains of the environment. How did people get to this point, intellectually speaking, where cities are now environmental saviors?

“Poisoned, scarred, and polluted”

Cities have been viewed as antithetical to nature since the first coughs of industrialization. Some of the most famous poetry of the 18th century decries sooty urban landscapes taking the place of greenery. Far from God-given nature, urban dwellers were also somehow darker of heart and mind: “I wander thro' each charter'd street/Near where the charter'd Thames does flow/And mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe,” wrote William Blake.

Blackheath, London, seen in Victorian times. (Flickr/Lloyd Rich)

The idea of cities as running counter to nature has held for centuries, and for good reason: Just a few decades ago, most American metros had visibly polluted skies, with sometimes fatal consequences. In the 1960s, urban rivers contained so much industrial runoff that some caught fire on a regular basis.

“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,’ ” Senator Gaylord Nelson told Congress in January 1970, the year of the first Earth Day. It would be a mistake to say that many people today don’t feel the same way.

Rethinking nature

Still, there’s been a gradual shift in the way many of us think about cities, as well as the “natural” lands that surround them, especially in the last 100 years. Neil Maher, associate professor in the Federated History Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University-Newark, believes that the emergence of the science of ecology marks an early point in that reconsideration.

Prior to the 1930s, “we had mostly been talking about conservation as something that was helpful to humans,” Maher says. The federal government’s approach to land use was based less on preserving wildlife and land, and more on managing them for the benefit of agriculture, logging, and other industries. “But then,” he says, “people like Aldo Leopold pushed back and said, actually, what we’re doing in the hinterlands with our forests and soil was unhealthy for for the landscape.”

A conservationist, forester, and scholar, Leopold argued for an approach to land use, adopted by both public and private individuals, marked by “an attitude of respectful guidance (as distinguished from domination) of the intricate ecological processes of nature."

A similar concept of ecology also bolstered arguments in the 1950s and 1960s against suburban sprawl. Closer to “nature” as these new communities were, critics like Jane Jacobs saw suburbs as inefficient and damaging uses of land. Cities, for her, were more organic forms of settlement. Life outside the city did not necessarily equate oneness with nature—an idea that crescendoed with Rachel Carson’s depiction of DDT dropping into rural and suburban landscapes in her classic book Silent Spring.

Cities go green

The cities of the 1960s didn’t look so good, either, with those smoggy skies and flaming rivers. But cities were also where things turned around.

On that first Earth Day, in 1970, millions of activists (mostly students) organized to protest cars and oil companies and clean up parks and sidewalks all over the country. These actions helped force the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. And the Clean Air and Clean Water acts that followed radically improved the environmental quality of cities, which under-regulated industry had so badly dirtied. Martin V. Melosi, an environmental historian at the University of Houston, reminded me that the energy crisis happening around the same time also made cars seem a little less appealing.

A view from the roof of the RCA building in midtown Manhattan showed a thick blanket of smog July 29, 1970. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)

But it really seems like cities went fully green in the 1990s, when the science around global warming began to gain momentum, and new academic fields like environmental science and planning blossomed. These new frames of thinking helped give rise to the concept of the "carbon footprint," which helped policy makers and scientists "build sustainability arguments ... that now often favor cities," William Cronon, an author and environmental historian, told me earlier this year. That’s been an incredibly useful metric as cities all over the world now attempt to reduce their emissions and plan for the future.

Today it seems unsurprising to read something like the following passage from David Owen's 2004 New Yorker article, "Green Manhattan":

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.

With high density and low per-capita energy use, obviously New York City is a more ecologically friendly place to live than, say, suburban Scarsdale, we might now think. But this notion came fully into its own within just the last decade.

It bears mentioning that whether cities are truly more environmentally friendly than other kinds of settlements depends on where you look. Beijing issued its very first smog state of emergency earlier this week, drawing some observers to compare its air conditions to those of American cities in the 1960s. As more people move into cities from rural places in the developing world, they tend to consume more energy and resources than before. And there have been some studies that suggest certain suburbs may be just as green as the denser cities they surround.

Still, denser settlements tend to mean fewer emissions. That’s why so many local leaders got to walk into COP21 as heroes, not villains—and they’ve got a century of history to thank.

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