How American Cities Made Earth Day

April 19, 2019 - (4 min read)

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans from all walks of life took to the streets, the auditoriums, and college campuses to put environmental concerns on the front page. This first Earth Day was a response to dire environmental challenges of the era. An oil well blew out and spilled off the coast of Santa Barbara, Lake Erie had been declared nearly dead, smog choked most major cities, and the Cuyahoga River caught on fire (again). Americans recognized that their economic growth came at too high of a cost.

Earth Day, and the wave of activism that would follow, is widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement, spurring the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the landmark Clean Air ActClean Water ActEndangered Species Act, and many other groundbreaking environmental laws.

These were national accomplishments, but the enduring power of Earth Day through derives from the fact that cities have always been at the forefront. In 1970, New York mayor John Lindsay shut down 5thAve to vehicle traffic and opened Central Park for the events, and Philadelphia celebrated an entire Earth Week. In 1990, the celebration went global and cities like Seattle and San Jose led a push to expand municipal recycling. In recent years Earth Day has grown to become largest secular holiday in the world led by local officials in thousands of cities.

Today, we’re staring down challenges that are even more profound than those of 50 years ago. The United States consistently lags behind all other industrialized nations in environmental performance, more than 100 million Americans live in communities where air pollution exceeds health-based standards, and global climate change threatens the very existence of cities like Paradise, California; Mexico Beach, Florida; and many others.

For this reason, NLC is today announcing a year-long partnership with the Earth Day Network to support and celebrate the 50thanniversary of Earth Day through Earth Day 2020 Cities.

2020 is a year of enormous significance: Besides marking the 50thanniversary of Earth Day, 2020 is also a benchmark year for action in many cities with longstanding climate goals. Kansas City, Missouri, has already achieved its goal of reducing emissions from municipal operations by 30 percent from 2000 levels. Although San Francisco will probably miss its ambitious 2003 goal of being zero-waste by 2020, the city has made substantial progress and is blazing a trail for many others to follow. 2020 will also mark the first progress report for countries, global corporations and cities that remain committed to the Paris Climate Agreement.

Cities are still leading US efforts to reduce emissions, transition to renewable energy and clean up waterways, but the urgency to act on climate change is greater than ever. “We are driven by this urgency,” noted Kathleen Rogers, President of the Earth Day Network, in discussing this partnership.

“The cities of our world are home to some of the most dynamic, innovative and bold solutions to climate change, and they must continue to lead the way to drive transformative change and meet this urgent challenge. The 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020 will mobilize global support for environmental action by bringing people together in cities across the world to build a movement that is inclusive, ambitious and impossible to ignore.”

Over the next year, NLC, Earth Day Network and many other partners will help cities seize the energy and enthusiasm of Earth Day to accelerate the work that must be done to protect and sustain the planet. Together, we will track the success of cities as they evaluate progress toward 2020 goals, collect new commitments from cities over the next year and elevate the stories of elected officials and municipal staff leading on environmental protection and conservation.

We hope you’ll join us, and that the collective power of cities can usher in a new era of environmental stewardship that meets the challenges of a changing climate.  Reach out to to get involved.

Cooper Martin smallAbout the Author: Cooper Martin is the director of sustainability at the National League of Cities.