Earth Day: 1970 and Now

The decade that began with the first Earth Day became a pivotal moment in U.S. environmental awareness and action. The core principles of the environmental decade are now questioned in the highest offices of our land.

2 minute read

April 22, 2020, 9:15 AM PDT

By Bruce Stiftel @BruceStiftel


National Park Service

Herbert Johnson was appointed by Robert Moses as the first manager of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in 1952 | National Park Service

On April 22, 1970, I stepped to the podium of the auditorium in Far Rockaway High School in New York City to introduce Herbert Johnson, the long-time park ranger of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a man who had labored most of his adult life to build a haven for birds and crustaceans in the shadow of Kennedy airport. Moved by the teaching of our science faculty, and drawn into a national conversation stimulated by Rachel Carson and Marjory Stoneman Douglass, I was one of a small group in my school who campaigned that the school should mark the first Earth Day in a significant way.

The decade that began with the first Earth Day became a pivotal moment in US environmental awareness and action, seeing passage of the Clean Air Act, the Federal Pollution Control Act amendments of 1972, the Coastal Zone Management Act and a host of other key environmental protection laws, many of which were echoed in our states and in other countries. It was also a time when school children became leaders in their families, promoting sustainable practices that often seemed at odds with the greatest growth spurt in consumerism that the world had known.

Earth Day became a regular part of our annual cycle and even faded into the background as we began to take for granted the cleaner water and air and resource management protections that resulted from the environmental decade. As a nation, we largely moved on to other concerns.

Our city planning profession, of course, did not. Environmental sustainability remained central to our cause as the issues were reframed and refocused around carbon footprint, biodiversity, genetic modification in the food supply, and other increasingly global concerns. Still, there was a complacency that here in the US that we had a consensus around the fundamentals of pollution control and sustainable yield from publicly managed natural resources.

Suddenly, that complacency no longer seems justified. The core principles of the environmental decade are now questioned in the highest offices of our land, and civil servants who dedicated their lives to protecting our planet for our children find themselves unwelcome in their workplaces. Again, an Earth Day that calls attention to the irreplaceable role of natural resources in sustaining life is essential to our future. Thank you for your commitment to a profession that works at the forefront of the battle for sustainability. May this Earth Day be a moment to reassure you that progress is possible and to contemplate the most effective path forward to living equitably within our means.


Bruce Stiftel

Bruce Stiftel, FAICP, is professor emeritus of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech. His research concerns planning theory, adaptive governance, and international development. He chairs the Planners for Climate Action knowledge/research group, co-chairs the Researcher and Academic Partner Constituency Group in the World Urban Campaign, co-chairs U.N. Habitat's University Network Initiative, and is a Director At-large of the American Planning Association.

Satalite image of a bright green lake surrounded by brownish-green land

California’s Largest Natural Lake Turns Green With … Algae

A potentially toxic algal bloom has turned Clear Lake in Northern California bright green, fed by increased runoff from human activity.

June 4, 2024 - Los Angeles Times

Three colorful, large beachfront homes, one khaki, one blue, and one yellow, with a small dune in front and flat sand in foreground.

Florida Homeowners 'Nope Out' of Beach Restoration Over Public Access

The U.S. Corps of Engineers and Redington Shores, Florida are at a standstill: The Corps won’t spend public money to restore private beaches, and homeowners are refusing to grant public access to the beaches behind their home in return for federal assistance.

June 7, 2024 - Grist

Multistory apartment building under construction.

New Tennessee Law Allows No-Cost Incentives for Affordable Housing

Local governments in the Volunteer State can now offer developers incentives like increased density, lower parking requirements, and priority permitting for affordable housing projects.

June 10, 2024 - Nooga Today

Walkway at San Gabriel River Park.

From Duck Farm to Parkland

The opening of the San Gabriel River Park expands access to green spaces for residents in the San Gabriel Valley, especially for Avocado Heights and other park-poor communities in the area.

6 hours ago - San Gabriel Valley Tribune

Oak tree with golden hour sun coming through its leaves on a hill in the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California.

Southern California’s Oak Trees are Under Threat

Goldspotted oak borers (GSOB) are invasive pests that are harming and killing oak trees across San Diego, Riverside, Orange, and Los Angeles counties.

7 hours ago - Los Angeles Times

Close-up of natural gas stove burner with blue flames.

Berkeley Voters to Decide on Building Gas Tax

The city could tax large buildings that use gas in lieu of enacting a law that would have banned gas-powered buildings altogether.

June 12 - Smart Cities Dive

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.